FACED WITH the threat of redundancy, five women stage a lock-in at a shirt factory in County Donegal. Ellen, Una, Vera, Rosemary and Rebecca unite against a common enemy and stand up to ‘the man’ and the union, in an effort to save their jobs.
This is The Factory Girls by Frank McGuinness, which arrives at the Town Hall Theatre on Tuesday May 21 and Wednesday 22 at 8pm, in a new production from Derry’s Millennium Forum and directed by Caitriona McLaughlin.
The Factory Girls was first staged at the Abbey in 1982 and was McGuinness’s breakthrough play. Despite being more than 30 years old, its themes of threatened job losses and factory closures are very topical, a fact acknowledged by cast-member Lucia McAnespie, who plays Vera.
“It has universal themes of family and friendship and specifically in terms of labour and the workforce,” she observes. “When these factories closed in Derry and Donegal in the 1980s thousands of women lost their jobs at a time when there was a very large female workforce in the region.
“Lots of the men didn’t have jobs so the women were losing their jobs at a time when they were the sole breadwinners and it was devastating. One of the topical aspects is the recent disaster in Bangladesh – as the reason the factories closed was the growing availability of cheap labour in places like Taiwan and Bangladesh - so a lot of the play is very current. It’s one of Frank’s first plays but it stands the test of time and audiences are accepting it as a modern piece.”
Women and men
McAnespie hails from Belfast and, having trained at RADA, has been largely based in London for the past 10 years – though she did feature in the Millennium Forum’s staging of McGuinness’s Carthaginians which toured to Galway last year.
She describes her character of Vera in Factory Girls. “She’s in her early thirties and married to an abusive husband and, though we don’t meet him in the play, he is very present. Vera’s terrified of him and he has ground her down.
“She has two young kids and her home life isn’t great so, for her, coming into work and being with the other women is her happiest time of the day, even though they work very hard and in very trying conditions.
“Even though she has not had an easy life she is fiercely protective of her children and her friends. There is one friend in particular she is very close to, Rebecca who is one of the only single women there. Vera is a very funny woman as well. The five women were all based on Frank McGuinness’s own mother and grandmother and female relatives who all worked in shirt factories. They are very witty and funny and they use their humour to try and overcome a lot of the s**t life has thrown at them. They’re outspoken and clever, cleverer than the positions they’ve been put in life, and they use their wit and their friendship to try and overcome that.”
If the chief focus of the play is on the five women, what of the two men in the drama - Rohan who owns the factory and Andy Bonner the union rep?
“Rohan is a lot younger than a lot of the women who work there,” says McAnespie. “He’s a bit of a blow-in, he’s just come into the factory and tried to run it his way but one of the main reasons the factory is going down is that he doesn’t really know what he’s doing. He’s not entirely clear or communicative with the women.
“The women have been working there much longer than he has and know a lot more about shirts but he just tries to take everything over. Then you have Andy Bonner the Union man and he is only out for himself as well. He’s been voted into the union but he hasn’t done anything to help the ladies which is why they take matters into their own hands.”
Five against the world
McAnespie goes on to describe the relationships among the women themselves.
“Frank McGuinness calls the women lionesses,” she says, “they are all very protective of the things that they love. They love each other, and their jobs, and the community within the factory, and to be honest I think both men are a little out of their depths with them.
“Although this is a female workforce the men are still in charge, even though the women know more and work harder and are better at everything, it’s the two men who have the big office and are running the show. That’s why the factory is going down.
“The ladies decide to fight them in the only way they can, this is basically a peaceful protest where they take over the factory. This is a huge thing for them to do, it’s completely unheard of and causes so much trouble.
“In the second half they are locked into Rohan’s office where there is a phone and people from the outside keep phoning them - Vera’s husband phones, they are rejected by their families, by the clergy - they ask the priest will he come and say Mass for them and he refuses, so one by one all of the community starts to fall away and they become more and more isolated.
“It’s just the five of them together against the world locked in this factory. They learn more about themselves and the world beyond while they are locked in. They’ve taken a stand after years of being beaten down by men and by life, they’ve now taken control of their own situation for once.”
Despite the women banding together to fight for their rights it does not all run smoothly.
“They all have outside pressures,” McAnespie observes. “Vera has two kids, one of whom is sick before the lock-in starts and the other gets sick while she is in the middle of it. It’s difficult for them all. Through the course of the lock-in some of them change their minds at different times and they have to convince each other of why they are staying, it’s a complicated situation and a lot of them waver at different points but they do what is true to themselves at the end.”
As well as McAnespie, The Factory Girls features Noelle Brown, Stella McCusker, Kerrie O’Sullivan, Cathleen Bradley, Sean Donegan and Howard Teale.
Tickets are available from the Town Hall on 091 - 569777 and www.tht.ie