For its fifth anniversary, the Arcola’s flexible playing space has been transformed by designer Lizzie Clachan into a version of its former self, a clothing factory. Only this one is in Donegal and the year, in Frank McGuinness’ first play, is 1982.
Four women squabble, laugh and tease each other and their teenage messenger as they check and finish the cheap shirts. They are under pressure, already on a three-day week in a business which is failing to compete with foreign imports, but crisis looms as their inexperienced male manager, Rohan, warns of redundancies and Bonner the long-suffering union representative tells them to be realistic and accept change.
Act Two sees the set transformed into a spartan office decorated with a ghastly tropical scene, where the protesting “girls” are sitting in. There isn’t anywhere for the story to go and Rohan’s insistence that they up their productivity when stock can’t be shifted doesn’t make sense. The point is there can be no satisfactory resolution but adversity gives the group - already cohesive - courage to speak up and make a stand.
McGuinness gives the women humour, anger, sharpness. It may be a fault in realistic terms that they all have the gift of the gab; most have a biting wit and at least one (Rebecca, played with spirit by Aislinn Mangan) sufficient intelligence and personality to make a mark elsewhere. But the quality of the crack is all the more enjoyable for those of us listening in.
Dour marriages, tedious, repetitive tasks and low status pale into second place as the women learn to take strength from each other. Great performances come from a substantial Maggie McCarthy as veteran worker and leader Ellen; Catherine Cusack as a bitter, anxious mother; Kate Binchy, catching Una’s gossipy religiosity and her daft attempt at practicality as she unloads everything but the proverbial sink for the stay in the office; Jane Murphy as the innocent Bunty-reading junior; Ruairi Conaghan as the unfortunate manager and Paul Lloyd as the union rep way out of his depth. But fine as individual performances are, the beautifully orchestrated ensemble work (directed with panache by Raz Shaw) is the real strength.
The Factory Girls is hugely enjoyable, funny and touching, and it couldn’t be more topical. In a programme note Cok Goknur, still running a skirt-making business above the theatre, describes how competition from the Far East has closed 1,000 London factories since 2000. At least the Arcola space has been turned, once again, to exciting, creative advantage.