March 1-11 | Coast Capital Playhouse, White Rock, 1532 Johnston Road
March 15-18 | The Cultch (part of CelticFest Vancouver)
Tickets: $20-$27 (White Rock); $25 — $30 (The Cultch) at peninsulaproductions.org
(Not suitable for young audiences; extreme language and violence)
Scoring the Canadian premiere of playwright Jaki McCarrick’s 2015 play Belfast Girls is a big deal for Peninsula Productions. Formed in 2010 to bring professional entertainment to the White Rock/South Surrey region, the company has presented numerous concerts, plays and a staged reading series. It is also commissioning a play about White Rock for Canada 150.
With Belfast Girls, Peninsula Productions takes its show on tour playing both its home digs in White Rock as well as at the Cultch as part of this year’s CelticFest Vancouver.
“We started about six years ago out of a desire to bring more professional performing arts to the White Rock/South Surrey area and establish a professional theatre company,” said Peninsula Productions’ artistic director Wendy Bollard. “We were lucky enough to get some grant money to get started, and, as of this January, the City of White Rock has leased us a space that we are hoping to turn into a black box theatre. There is also a fantastic amateur theatre group here — White Rock Players’ Club — that has produced such noted local theatre people as Dean Paul Gibson (Bard on the Beach, others), who have been very supportive.”
Bollard has performed at both venues during her days as a touring jazz vocalist. Some years back, she tried her hand at directing and realized she loved it. In 2015, she obtained her Masters in Directing in London, UK, and is excited to be helming Belfast Girls. The show has been a passion of hers since discovering the play at London’s famed Samuel French theatre books store.
“It’s a really powerful play about a very tumultuous time in the 1850s when revolutions were happening all over Europe, when the famine was turning Ireland upside down, when the suffragette movement was active and there were these women being shipped off to Australia from the workhouses in Belfast believing that they were going to paradise only to find something very different,” she said. “During the long passage, the five women the story centres around start learning more about what’s going on in the world and they get pretty riled up. It’s a really powerful ensemble piece.”
Ensemble pieces with an entirely female cast are rare. So the auditions for Belfast Girls were busy indeed. Bollard wanted to put together a very supportive group to tackle the vulnerable material who could work within the play’s guidelines. It wasn’t always easy.
“One of the characters is a woman who has a Jamaican mother and an Irish father and trying to find someone to fill that role here in Vancouver wasn’t as easy as it might have been,” she said. “And there is a love affair between her and another woman that develops so there was a very special kind of chemistry required. There were a lot of boxes to check off.”
The same is true of the content of McCarrick’s play which aimed to expose the ugly side of the particular wave of Irish immigration that the story magnifies. Many of the women pulled off the streets to take the trip Down Under were “public women” (a.k.a. prostitutes) forced into the sex trade following being orphaned by the famine or falling on other hard times. Lured by the prospect of a better chance abroad and to escape the social judgment of home, these women undertook the hard three month-long boat ride only to land and be ostracized as slatterns upon arrival. Of course, in a typically Australian twist, the fact that there was a shortage of women in the colony and great demand for all manner of skilled and unskilled labour meant that, within a few years, many of these mistreated women turned the tables on their latest oppressors.
Belfast Girls doesn’t go that far into the history. Instead, it’s a rough and randy ride through the five characters’ reasons for taking the trip and the realities they face on the voyage. McCarrick has hit on a part of the Emerald Isle mythology that has been ignored and deserves exposure.
“She is writing the screenplay at this very moment,” said Bollard. “Obviously, shifting the focus to one of the characters rather than the ensemble as storytelling changes depending on the medium. I think you need to see the stage version.”
And afterwards, you can chase back the experience with a Guinness or Bushmills.
Preview in the Sun