Lay Up Your Ends
by Martin Lynch
Directed by Martin Murray for Queens University Players
Elmwood Hall, Belfast
Charabanc Theatre Company was one of the major Irish theatre companies of the 1980s and early 1990s. Pioneers of independent theatre in Northern Ireland, the company foregrounded the experience of women in society and created thought provoking and accessible works out of community interaction. Their debut production, Lay Up Your Ends is revived for Queen’s University Players under the direction of Martin Murray.
Mixing socialist feminist politics, raw street humour, bawdy banter and lively mill songs with true female camaraderie, Lay Up Your Ends depicts the lives and struggles of ‘insignificant’ women during the Belfast mill strike of 1911. A protest born of the increasing contrast between the city’s industrial pride and the appalling poverty and horrifying working conditions of the factory workers. Written collaboratively by Martin Lynch and the five actresses who comprised Charabanc at the time, Belle, Ethna, Lizzie, Florrie and Mary constitute the cast of Lay Up Your Ends, each with their own unique troubles.
Belle (Aoibheann Matthews) struggles to keep faith in the cause and pleads with the workers not to return too soon. Her second in command, Florrie, (a commanding performance from Alice Coogan), is a country ‘blow-in’ fighting to keep her siblings fed after her eldest brother inherited the family farm, forcing her to move to Belfast seeking work. Meanwhile, Mary (Claire Patterson) is forced to cancel her wedding due to the lack of funds, whilst Ethna (Danielle Cunningham) lacks money to repay the numerous loan sharks she owes throughout the play. Finally, there’s Lizzie (Catriona Lilley), who doubts the validity of the strike opting to take Miss’ Galway’s recommendation to return to work.
Lay Up Your Ends offers no sentimental vision of unity between its characters, instead, they bicker and differ, often fiercely. However the woman reveal strong solidarity by singing and laughing during their strike and although the woman loose their economic protest for better pay, they win a newfound sense of community and pride. The ensemble cast find humour of their situation at every opportunity and Daniel Corrigan comic interjections only add to the overall laughter. Aoibheann Matthews in particular, mixes comedy with pathos masterfully as the determined Belle and offers a standout performance. Whilst Danielle Cunningham’s diction and projection is lacking, leaving some of her speeches inaudible for the audience.
With a recent revival of some of Ulster’s most popular drama’s, it’s no surprise that Lay Up Your Ends still resonates with modern audiences today. It’s depiction of the working class and the fear of job losses is an all too familiar scene with the recent redundancies in many of Northern Irelands factories lately. Lay Up Your Ends was Charabanc’s first production and the company’s vision was entrenched neither in commercial or avant-garde theatre but rather they wanted to perform within the Catholic and Protestant working class communities they came from. They were renowned for touring to non-institutional performance spaces like parish halls and community centers and performing with minimalist set. Unfortunately though Murray’s setting in the Elmwood Hall: a cathedral of consumption in the salubrious suburbs of south Belfast contrasts jarringly with the stage world of poverty and penury and despite a talented ensemble cast, the production gets lost in the sheer size and scale of its space.