Girls on tour

Thirty years after its debut, Frank McGuinness’s play is back on the production line

The Factory Girl
City Factory, Derry
More than 30 years after it was premiered at the Abbey, Frank McGuinness's rumbustious early play has found a spiritual home among the faded cream tiles, iron pillars and concrete floors of Derry's long-abandoned City Factory.

From the mid-19th century, thousands of skilled women were employed in this vast, red-brick premises, where they sewed fine white-collar shirts for business executives abroad. McGuinness isolates and dramatises one of many similar tragedies unfolding in the lives of working people since the 1970s.

Ellen, Una, Vera, Rebecca and Rosemary’s gruelling, poorly paid jobs are threatened by the imminent closure of a Donegal shirt factory. Their bosses and union representatives have crumbled under the economic advantages of importing cheap, second-rate clothing from the Far East. Loyalty and human lives simply do not come into it.

The thrill and the risk of site-specific theatre is that the venue may threaten to overwhelm the production, and the City Factory is certainly the star of the early days of Caitriona McLaughlin’s delicately handled touring revival. A visually-striking wall of shirts divides the huge space between the workroom – complete with machines, bolts of cloth, boxes of buttons, bobbins and spools of coloured thread – and office areas.


As the protestors stage a weekend sit-in in the boss's office, the audience moves location. Among a hard-working cast, Stella McCusker delivers a masterclass as elderly Una, whose life revolves around her job and the camaraderie of her colleagues. Noelle Brown's shop steward Ellen is at once feisty and defensive, weighed down by the burden of family tragedy. The other performances do not feel quite as spontaneous, while the two, oddly-accented male characters, played by Sean Donegan and Howard Teale, do not take off convincingly. It now remains to be seen how the actors and Maree Kearns's gritty set design will adapt to the challenge of conventional venues.
Tours until June 1st

Jane Coyle

Jane Coyle is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture