Review: The Train - first class delivery for women's rights at Belfast's MAC
The issue of women's reproductive rights in 1970s Ireland doesn't immediately suggest 'musical comedy' - yet this is the path taken in The Train with delightful ease.
After enjoying huge success at the Abbey Theatre in Dublin, Arthur Riordan's critically acclaimed play makes it debut at The MAC in Belfast this week.
Directed by the city's own Lynne Parker, The Train tells the true story of how a group from the Irish Women's Liberation Movement boarded a train from Dublin to Belfast in 1971 with the aim of buying contraceptives, which were illegal in the Republic at the time.
Their journey marked a watershed moment for women's issues in Ireland, when many were questioning their role within society as declared by both the church and the State.
While a group of 47 boarded the train at Connolly Station in 1971, this play focuses on five young women who have had enough of the social constraints they face when it comes to sex and reproduction.
Amidst the backdrop of a live band, the chorus of women open the show by taking the audience through a brief timeline of events that paved the way for where they now stand on this emotive and taboo subject.
Again, it is not expected that a musical number would be the best avenue to convey such issues, but Bill Whelan's music and lyrics are both entertaining and engaging. The songs are delivered with real enthusiasm and irony from the cast that it is easy to get swept up with the tone of the play.
The audience is then introduced to the looming figures of male politicians and clergymen who ominously outline the role of women, leading to the actors on stage questioning, debating and rebelling against what is expected 'in the eyes of God'.
Quotes from the bible and the Constitution of Ireland provide essential exposition for the story to covey the attitudes of the 1970s, but - as the women dissect their position in society - they are slowly counteracted with references from notable feminists such as Germaine Greer and Gloria Steinem.
It's the narrative of the young revolutionary women on the train that is the main focus of the play, but it's the story of 'Irish everywoman' Aoife and her husband Adam that provides not only a glimpse of the issues in practice, but also the ironic humour that the play relies on.
The couple are blissfully married with two children, and both agree they have no wish to extend their family. But while Adam is happy to leave it to 'God's will', Aoife explores the idea of using contraceptives to prevent any further pregnancies.
Aoife is not a social revolutionary, she is simply a wife and a mother who wants the best for her family and it is when considering this that she finds herself questioning the role of the church in her marital bed.
This is portrayed to the audience in the literal sense in one particularly hilarious scene when Aoife debates the issue with the staunch Catholic priest as they lie side by side.
Humour is also found when the determined but naive ladies reach Belfast and realise they may well be out of their depth - highlighted by a discussion on whether they should go to a 'Protestant chemist or Catholic chemist' to obtain the contraceptives.
For the modern day audience it's easy to laugh along to the absurdity of the situation, but the seriousness of the issue is always pushed to the forefront when it is necessary. This reminds everyone that while it would be unimaginable in this day and age, this was a very real and very emotive issue in 1971.
This is best conveyed when the ladies meet a woman on the train during their journey home who is still mourning the death of her mother - a woman who died giving birth to her tenth child, despite doctors' warnings.
The humour in the play keeps the audience entertained but it is the weight of the issues that gives the show its purpose and message.
That being said, The Train is at its best when it is delivering a political punch with a witty one-liner or a tongue-in-cheek musical number and there are plenty to enjoy throughout the show.
The Train runs at The MAC, Belfast until Sunday, April 23.