Writer: Arthur Riordan
Composer: Bill Whelan
Director: Lynne Parker
Reviewer: Saoirse Anton
“We’ll show the old farts who maintain their dominance
Over our constituent parts
The time is near, to kick against the pricks
Sign up here, for gender politics.”
Just minutes down the road from the Abbey Theatre, at Connolly Station on the 22nd May 1971, members of the Irish Women’s Liberation Movement stepped off “The Contraceptive Train” from Belfast, proudly bearing pills, condoms, and other forms of contraception, which were banned in the Republic of Ireland, in what was to become a milestone act in Irish feminism. Now, 46 years later, under the direction of Lynne Parker, The Train recreates the enthusiasm and defiance of that day while adding its own present urgency.
With book and lyrics by Arthur Riordan and music by Bill Whelan, The Train explores the events surrounding the Contraceptive Train and its context in the timeline of Irish feminism, from Cumann na mBan to #WakingtheFeminists, through two different storylines: that of the women on the train, and that of Aoife and Adam as the typical Irish, Catholic couple. Though the production seemed to take a couple of scenes to fully warm up last night, the entire cast give strong performances, with Clare Barrett and Louis Lovett standing out as Aoife and Adam, a couple whose marriage is plagued by the restrictions of the Catholic Church and who are trying to navigate the changes that are on the horizon. Barrett’s character is well crafted, both as a very human character and as a self-aware dramatic device who, alongside Darragh Kelly as the incorrigible priest, reminds us of the “epic present tense” at play, and performs one of the most memorable numbers in the show “Written By A Man.”
Ciaran Bagnall’s set design, with its versatile moving parts and pared back suggestion of a train station prompts strong staging, with the male characters, such as politicians and priests, often playing from the high platforms at either side of the stage; though the women are centre stage, the church and state are on the periphery in a position of greater power. This signification presents interesting power dynamics as the women gradually begin to take their place on the high platforms with signs bearing messages such as “Sisterhood is powerful,” and “Gardaí, still afraid of feminists.”
The show has evolved and changed since its first outing in 2015. It premiered just over a month before the first #WakingtheFeminists meeting in 2015 and on this run it has recognised that. With new references to the Repeal movement, the heartbreaking case of Ann Lovett, and #WakingtheFeminists, this production reminds us of the steps yet to be taken and brings a current, urgent call to action to the national stage through the story of the Contraceptive Train.
The Train is a heartfelt, comic, and crucial piece of theatre that speaks of Irish feminism past, present, and future. It will have you singing about gender politics, learning about the Contraceptive Train, engaging with the battles still to be fought, and it will remind you that “a woman without a man is like a fish without a bicycle” (Gloria Steinem).
Runs until 15 April 2017 | Image: Contributed