Belfast Girls

These 5 sex workers share their future plans, and they range from finding rich husbands to overthrowing capitalism.

By Andrew Andrews

Labhaoise Magee, Mary Mallen, Caroline Strange, Sarah Street and Aida Leventaki in Irish Rep's 2022 production of Jaki McCarrick’s Belfast Girls, directed by Nicola Murphy. Original photo by Carol Rosegg.

Four “public women” are convinced by a priest in Belfast to apply for passage on a ship to Australia to escape the Irish Potato Famine in 1850.

Waiting to depart Ireland with other “orphan girls,” the prostitutes have been lured by the promise of a new life with lonely, successful Australian pioneers eager to make wives of the purportedly-virgin strangers upon arrival.

At the last minute, a scrawny girl claiming to be a maid named Molly is assigned to their room, and unlike the prostitutes, the girl is well-behaved and reads books she received from her former mistress.

After Molly shares a copy of Karl Marx’s recently-published Communist Manifesto with Judith, the self-appointed moral compass of the group, their friendship develops into a romance they must keep hidden from the others.

Although the cabin might be inaccurately large for last-class accommodations on a cut-rate ocean liner, the set, lighting, sound and costume design by Chika Shimizu, Michael O’Connor, Caroline Eng and China Lee, respectively, provide great sense of place.

It seems that every theatre season has a prominent theme, and it looks like 2022 will feature plenty of stories about true historical events with varying degrees of accuracy.

Already this year we’ve seen Side Show (about conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton), Citizen Wong (about activist Wong Chin Foo) and, most-recently, Parade (about lynched Jew Leo Frank). Stretching the category a bit, Shakespeare’s Henry V and Penelope could also be included.

Although Belfast Girls isn’t about specific real-life individuals, it does take place aboard the very real ship Inchinnan, which departed Ireland in 1848 full of real-life orphans—in the sense that most of the young women on board had lost at least one parent to the famine or other causes.

Like the other above-mentioned plays that are based on actual events, the entertainment value of Belfast Girls is basically a “so-so” story wrapped around an interesting history lesson.

With five strong characters all going on a journey (one of whom is also the stranger coming into “town”), I found it difficult to emotionally attach to any of them.

The story does contain a lot of interpersonal conflict, which regular readers know I adore; that is certainly to be expected when a group of ill-mannered people are forced to live in tight, secluded quarters for three months with little to keep them occupied. Unfortunately, for all of the first act and much of the second, the conflict feels very superficial, which left me squirming in my seat instead of hanging onto the edge of it.

My partner and I felt that the subplot about Judith and Molly’s romance and hints at leading a communist revolt upon arrival in Australia seemed superfluous. This may have been an attempt to ride the current popularity of queer stories (see our reviews of The Cake and At The Wedding) and step up the drama, but it failed to deepen the latter in any meaningful way.

On the positive side, the script does a nice job of conveying the hardship of spending three months in close quarters on the rough sea, and the five performers all fill their roles nicely. The set, lighting and sound design are absolutely gorgeous, too, as to be expected when most of the seats sell for nearly $75.

At that price, however, I shouldn’t have to wonder during the break if the story will be worth hanging around for the second act. Based on the empty seats I saw post-intermission that were vacated after the first half, I must not have been the only audience member to ask themselves the same question.

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Andrew Andrews attended Belfast Girls at Irish Repertory Theatre in Manhattan on Thursday, May 26, 2022 @ 7:00pm to write this review.