Saturday, 20 April 2013


Hearty comedy meets emotional complexity in a hugely enjoyable "shirt factory" play

We've reached the interval during Nicky Harley's production of Patsy Durnin's Tillies, one of two plays this week that focuses on women who worked in shirt factories (the other being Frank McGuinness's The Factory Girls). I take a glance at the advertising blurb immediately and spot the words "vivid" and "emotional".

Now, vivid it certainly has been, but "emotional"? So far, we've been treated to an undeniably funny and lively showcase of the talent in Derry-Londonderry, calming nostalgia for the former factory girls in the Millennium Forum audience, including the one sitting beside me. But there's been little poignancy so far. The tone's almost been worthy of a local sitcom, albeit light years better than anything the Hole In The Wall gang could ever come up with. There is little hint of the emotional power that will eventually transform the play into a rather substantial comedic and dramatic historical document.

As the play begins, we're transported back to the floor of Derry's Tillie & Henderson factory in the early 1960's, where our factory girls - Kitty (Maureen Wilkinson), Bertha (Kathy Deehan), Maggie (Maeve Connolly), Rosie (Louise Conaghan), Suzy (Rachel Melaugh) and Lily (Dearbhaile McKinney) - chat about their lives, loves and loathes while wondering about their conditions and pay (or lack of it). Their thick-accented, homely, womanly Derry repartee, which raises regular bursts of laughter, sometimes uproariously so, from everyone in the audience, is worthy of Marie Jones' finest work, although their manager, Davy (Seamus Ball) doesn't share in everyone's amusement: "There's enough clowns in here to run a circus."

The banter we hear toes the line regarding sectarianism, labour and even stereotyping, but it all plays to the rule of funny in the first act, which is really just a casual insight into what these women do when they're not working. For every rather crass or easy joke thrown in (Typical Derry slang like "Catch yerself on!" will always get a laugh from anyone) there's a more sophisticated punchline waiting around the corner.

Yet beneath the laughs, one sees how imaginative and frustrated the girls are. We understand the pain that they feel from the isolated mundanity of factory life, and why it has given them cause for an identity crisis. As Lily, who will soon leave to start a career in nursing, puts it, it's like "a woman's prison", albeit one where the workers consistently sing mood relating, ear-worming songs to keep their spirits up. The slightly gloomier lighting that greets us when the girls talk to union man Steven (Paul O'Doherty) about what the introduction of the (true to life) "time study" programme will mean for them foreshadows the beating heart of the play that we will soon bare witness to.

The arrival of time study man Robert (Andrew Doherty) is a vital injection of life into the play, with the entire programme being the emotional centrepiece of the whole affair. Its mantra - more work, less workers, lower wages - cleverly and carefully reflects the effects and the potential causes of not only the girls' situation, but the current economic crisis. The "everyone for themselves, grab, grab, grab" nature of the programme is telling, with the girls, especially Maggie, smart enough to realise that it is a "necessary" evil being forced on them by the climate, rather than the boon to the workers that Davy and Steven initally claims it is.

The tone of the powerful second act is not always effectively maintained, with a quiet chat between Bertha and Davy seeming rather out of place amidst much hyperactivity and fireworks. On reflection, however, it is necessary in that we see Davy admit the nature of his mistakes, and how management must paint a good picture of their business even though they feel they are in the wrong. And the sadness the girls feel when they lose their jobs really strikes a chord. We've already learnt how easy one can become entrenched in a working routine. But it's here that we are uncomfortably reminded that, however soul-destroying it may seem at times, a job is a job, and that when you lose yours, how hard it is to get back in to work. It's a tried and trusted message, and it's not delivered very subtly either, but the points are made effectively, with the entire cast - especially Deehan and Connelly - truly rising to the occasion.

But for all the messages I've heard tonight, the best one I have to give is: see Tillies. You don't have to be a woman or have worked in the Tillie & Henderson shirt factory to get great value from this production.

The second performance of Tillies, a Playhouse Theatre production, will take place in Derry-Londonderry's Millennium Forum tonight at 8 pm. For more information, click here.