Wednesday, September 15, 2021

Rough Girls – charting women's football first steps onto the pitch amid adversity (Lyric Theatre until 25 September)

There’s more than a smidgeon of Brecht in Tara Lynne O’Neill’s new play Rough Girls. As the story builds up, the lines are drawn on the stage. The wings of Ciaran Bagnall’s girdered set are open. A few lucky audience members sit in a grandstand in the middle of the action. The evening finishes with the stage managers joining the cast on stage for the curtain call: an indication that the eleven players on the Lyric’s floodlit pitch are backed by a team. One that has overcome Covid-related obstacles as well as funding to make it to a two and half week run on the Lyric Theatre’s main stage.

O’Neill has been consumed by the dream of this writing and staging play for such a long time. In theatre bars after shows for at least the last five years, she would bubble over with zeal about the potential for 11 women to perform together on a Belfast stage. In the end, it was the guts of 15 if you count the musicians tucked into one corner and the stage crew.

Stylistically, it’s an unusual piece. There’s very little locally to compare it to in form. Often driven by Katie Richardson’s rhythm and the percussive soundscape of an industrial city that is ill at ease with itself, there are scenes of choreographed performance poetry, football matches portrayed through dance routines, traditional dramatic encounters, and phrases thrown into the air by running actors like an exercise in a rehearsal room. There’s a bit of everything, and while the internal inconsistency leads to a meandering plot development in the first half, there’s something refreshing and rather apt about the refusal to conform to expectations.

Then there’s O’Neill herself. The playwright and performer acts as joyful ringmaster and eye-rolling referee, oozing her trademark comedic timing and delivery as she takes on all the male roles. A human-sized puppet enlivens the head-the-ball club chairman in a way that becomes remarkably natural as the two-act play progresses. The tango is inspired; the big bass drum so playful.

Yet circumstance nearly snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. Theatres going dark surely spelled the end of O’Neill’s female fantasy. There was surely more chance of her reviving her fabulous solo Shirley Valentine show on the Lyric stage for a third time (the second run finished on the eve of lockdown) as pandemic restrictions are slowly removed, than assembling a cast of Irish talent to chart the first five years of recognised women’s football in Belfast.

The audience watch as Mrs Stott (Jo Donnelly), wife of the secretary of Distillery football club, plans a 1917 charity match that will take women’s football out of the factory yard and out of the terraces and onto the grass pitch for the first time. There’s tension as a shaky solidarity across the classes is negotiated alongside familial and societal expectations. The script acknowledges the roughness of the time: loved ones at war, disapproval at single motherhood, childlessness, sickness and abusive family situations. And there’s an honesty about the stumbling trajectory of women’s football throughout the next century, and an absence of any attempt to line the cloud with silver or theatrical glitter.

An emotional goal is fired into the back of the net in the second half when Molly’s mum (Claire Cogan) finds her voice and stands up to the faceless men. Her act resonates with any number of contemporary campaigns and causes, as does the script’s recurring questioning of motives and analysis of outcomes.

The casting and Kimberley Sykes’ direction allows many of the actors to change position and demonstrate less predictable sides of their talent on the Rough Girls pitch. Normally actors like Caroline Curran, Nicky Harley and Jo Donnelly are usually asked to play for laughs, often the earthier the better. Here, Curran’s Gertie is allowed to be robust and illiterate while hiding a vulnerable home life, Harley’s Duncher is wonderfully clumsy (with an Oscar-nominated nosebleed), Donnelly’s Mrs Stott is determined and spunky without any need to be saucy.

Eloïse Stevenson plays a stoic Molly who visibly balances her own desires with those who depend on her. Catriona McFeely flits from factory floor to foreman’s filly before taking a painful stand. Carol Moore paints a curmudgeonly and sleekit Mrs Cummings, while Suzie Seweify’s portrays a classless Miss Montgomery who isn’t conscious of her independent spirit. Ruby Campbell creates an energetic Tilly, and the wordless Nuala McGowan remains very present despite her lack of dialogue and extends the band out onto the stage with her bodhran.

The socially distanced reduced capacity means that tickets for Rough Girls are scarce. Getting back to the theatre will be an overdue treat for many. Yet for many, that impulse to return to communal culture will be delayed by the need to wait for the evolving restrictions to be lifted that have so dogged the reopening of theatres and continue to threaten the short to medium term financial viability of venues (which will face the end of furlough without any guarantee of meaningful income in the run up to Christmas).

I’ll leave the last words to a portion of one of O’Neill’s monologues that is reproduced in the Rough Girls programme:

“Football like life, like theatre can’t be played along. It’s not about one player, one performer; it’s about a team … It can’t be done alone … We missed you.”

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