REVIEW: Belfast Girls

The bottom floor of the Luminaire Club at Belfast's MAC Theatre is simply buzzing when Michael Mulcahy, Christina Nelson and Jazzmin McClure march on stage to a song made famous by Facebook and YouTube. As Big Bernie Greene, Betty and Michelle respectively - also known as the "Belfast Girls" - they hip-hop, rap and jive to the sound of "How Dare You Speak To Me Like That", a shock to the senses of anyone expecting typical theatre or even typical cabaret.

Yes, Belfast Girls, directed by Nelson from Mulcahy's script, is atypical and unconventional with regards to theatre and life – and it's very loud and very proud about it. There's something to be said for the impression made by not just this raucous opening number but for this production in general. As if it's not only making a case for its characters as people, but also as characters in fiction. We have to play hard as well as work hard, and we need our Real Housewives Of Norn Iron and our Belfast Girls as much as we need our Streetcars Named Desire and All Mod Cons. Liberation in a nutshell, ladies and gentlemen.

On the surface, Belfast Girls looks like a hastily thrown together series of sketches, even if they successfully exhibit the multiple character-playing skills of Christina Nelson and Jazzmin McClure around Michael Mulcahy's intentionally ludicrous Bernie. All with the sole point, it seems, of showing what lengths a trio of down-on-their-luck (though is that necessarily the case?) girls will go to get their dream holiday to Santa Ponça in Mallorca.

But dwelling too much on the sloppiness, silliness, incoherence and apparent empty-headedness in Belfast Girls might actually miss the point. What Mulcahy and Nelson have touched on here is a kind of self-awareness, to the greatest extremes, about how people operate at the top and bottom of the societal rung during their darkest or most pressurised of times.

Every character we see on stage is defined by their class - where they fit in, where they think they fit in, where they aspire to fit in and where they once thought they fitted in but no longer do. Either side of the inescapably endearing struggles of McClure's Michelle and Nelson's Betty (which include Michelle trying to apply for a job at KFC by saying she "loves the chicken") you have McClure donning new costumes and wigs to play a rather snide bureaucrat and a fitness instructor with her share of Jenny Joyce smirks, while Nelson is a hoot as both Bernie's Ma and Bernie's boyfriend, Shankill Joe.

Speaking of Shankill Joe, there's a tragic case here alongside this rather large source of laughs. He is a sad, almost pathetic emblem of outdated patriarchal privilege on both race and religion, reduced in later adulthood to a scruffy joke of a beggar who has forgotten how to connect and communicate. Who can only "get it on" with himself. As a performer, and director, Nelson has found profundity to go with the hilarity: in Joe, and indeed in every other character who isn't Betty, Bernie or Michelle, the walls of condescension and inflexible thinking are torn down for an open-mindedness that's actually refreshing in both its pacing and its frequent ability to tickle the funny bone. Ignoring the travails of the titular trio simply won't make their, and everyone else's, problems go away – recognising what they go through, as well as enjoying it, is key to helping them and helping ourselves. The production may still ring hollow for some, and that's understandable, but in their soulful, tongue-in-cheek countering of everything they find to be restrictive and overly structured, these Belfast Girls warrant their applause.

Simon Fallaha

Belfast Girls ran at The Mac until 23 June. Photo by Simon Fallaha.

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