Review: Rough Girls a beautiful piece of theatre that hits the back of the net

Jane Hardy

Rough Girls is the first major production at the Lyric Theatre since Covid restrictions eased

Rough Girls

Lyric Theatre, Belfast

Until September 25

PONDERING Tara Lynne O'Neill's idea for a musical based on the birth of women's soccer in early 20th century Belfast, commissioned by the Lyric Theatre five years ago, I thought it might be maybe too left field, even a tad Springtime with Hitler. I was 100 per cent wrong.

From the kick off whistle last night, this part-history, emotionally intelligent drama with music was premier league, tackling misogyny, partition and a male hegemony which asked itself, 'What would women do with their ample bosoms, running around the football pitch?'.

Passages reminded me in their assurance of National Theatre and RSC productions.

Cleverly, we had a Cabaret style MC, played by Ms O'Neill herself.

The First World War context gave us some genuinely tear jerking moments, but we also got a nuanced sense of the women putting on their football boots.

It's very funny, too, with reference to the smelly male shirts they borrow and lots of glorious bad language.

Reviewers normally only comment on sets when the production isn't great, but you have to commend Ciaran Bagnall's sterling work here. A few audience members were seated behind the stage, the lights shone brightly on the imagined pitch, and it was period Match of the Day.

The women of Belfast had to fight so hard to get their dream, with women of all classes trapped in their roles. The narrative arc, rather like that in Field of Dreams, is one audiences love; that is, feisty underdogs overcoming adversity to win, here in the international Ireland v England women's match.

Rough Girls is the first major production at the Lyric Theatre since Covid restrictions eased

Great performances shone onstage from Caroline Curran (Maggie Muff of fond memory) as fiery Gertie, Eloise Stevenson a shining star as Molly, and Ruby Campbell ditto as Tilly.

Jo Donnelly, playing Mrs Stott whose childlessness left her restless, without a role apart from the revolutionary leader of the new women's team, was superb. It was a great moment when she discarded her long-skirted posh uniform for the shirt and shorts.

The way rhythm, percussion and WWI style songs added to the drama via Katie Richardson's score was impressive.

My only tiny caveat was that - and it was a drama of two halves, so to speak - there were multiple endings.

We had a poignant scene, with our MC dramatically reminding us that football was important, part of women's history - but our 90 minutes, happily, weren't quite up.

Feisty Belfast ma Mrs O'Neill (Claire Cogan) challenged the male authorities, who wanted to ban women's soccer, in ballsy manner; her shouting at the open door was excellent.

The great thing was that, because of the staging and writing, Rough Girls avoided sentimentality, even when Molly's parents came round to the idea of women's football, with her dad attending the big match.

This play will be performed again and again, and under Kimberley Sykes's skilful direction was a genuinely beautiful piece of theatre.

Rough Girls tells the story of the Belfast's first women's football team

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