Orphan girls take a shot at life in Australia

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“Belfast Girls” cast members, from left, Phoebe Heath, Eliza Jennings, Isabel Burton, Joanna Richards and Natasha Vickery. Photo: Jordan BestTHEATRE director Jordan Best knows a rattling good story when she sees one, but she does not claim to be a historian.

Rather, as the director of Echo Theatre, a new company conceived in consultation with Stephen Pike and Jackie Richards from The Q, Queanbeyan, she is looking out for new audiences, new talent and, above all, new stories. 

When we catch up with her, she’s in the middle of directing a play that reaches into the dark historical background of Australia.

Before reading British playwright Jaki McCarrick’s “Belfast Girls”, which won the UK’s Papatango Prize for New Writing in 2010 and was later developed at the National Theatre Studio, Best had never heard of the so-called “Earl Grey orphans”, the 4175 Irish girls who were given the chance to travel to Australia to find a better life under the British Secretary of State for the Colonies’ “Orphan Scheme”, but they were really intended as breeding stock and labourers.

Shipped out during the Irish Famine with the promise of a better life in Australia but destined to become cheap domestic labour, these were the “Belfast Girls” of a play that bowled director Best over for the suffering, wit and the fortitude of its five protagonists. 

“I didn’t know much about this,” Best says. 

“And I’m not religious, so I never really understood the English versus Irish issues until I read Jaki’s play.

Theatre director Jordan Best… “I knew it was awful but I had no concept of famine.”

“One in eight people died… I knew it was awful but I had no concept of famine… it was important for me and the actors in the play to understand the appalling conditions that led them to get on the boats.” 

All the girls were expected to be ready to work and marry, she says, but when they got here what they found was bleak, dry and alien, and Irish women were usually dismissed as whores, thieves and lazy – fit candidates to form an under-class in Australia. 

McCarrick’s play doesn’t traverse that territory though. Set entirely on board the ship – a real ship in history, “Inchinnan” – beginning in the Port of Belfast and ending as they’re about to land in Sydney.

Full of the ribald humour for which the real-life Belfast girls were known, the script’s incisive dialogue means that while the emotions run high, the laughs run strong, too.

Praising the “lovely dialogue”, Best says that the characters sing and laugh, adding: “If you’re in trouble, it’s important to laugh.” 

On stage at The Q, deep in coils of rope, wood and scaffolding for Chris Zuber’s boat-like set, she explains that each of the five Belfast girls has a moment and her own secrets but her own strengths, too – Belfast girls were known to be the toughest of all the orphans, accustomed to fighting for themselves. 

Judith (Isabel Burton) is part-Jamaican. Brought up in rural Ireland where she’s stuck out like a sore thumb for her skin colour, she’s been adopted by an oyster catcher but runs away to cosmopolitan Belfast.

Ellen (Joanna Richards) has grown up in Belfast and is a bit slower than the others and rather touchy.

Hannah (Natasha Vickery) comes from County Sligo in the west. “Sold” by her father, she’s come to Belfast to escape poverty and eviction.

Sarah (Phoebe Heath) has lived in the country for a lot longer, but far from making her more acquiescent, she’s become very angry. 

Finally, there’s Molly (Eliza Jennings) who is a bit of a mystery – evidently better educated than the others and full of pro-feminist ideas.

While one of them has a brother in Australia, most know nothing about the new land that is supposed to transform their lives.

While it’s not primarily a political play, during the journey they tease out the causes of the famine and the awareness of women’s potential for freedom in a new country emerges. 

Ultimately, theirs is a journey towards hopefulness. 

“By the end, they are hopeful, but very afraid,” Best says.

“Belfast Girls”, The Q, Queanbeyan, August 24-31. Book at theq.net.au or 6285 6290. 


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