Written by Maria McAteer and directed by Karen Spicer, The Guinness Girl chronicles four years in the life of Katy, a mixed race girl during the 1970s. Set in Newcastle between 1974 and 1978, we see that Katy’s identity is not so much a problem for herself as it is for the world around her.
Being a single parent is hard at the best of times, but for Sheila (Rebecca Kenny) who hails from Ireland and her daughter Katy (Maria McAteer), the era compounds the pressures they are under. But to understand their experiences fully, we have to put them into historical context.
Decades ago, children born outside of marriage were stigmatised by local communities and society at large. Then there was the anti-Irish sentiment at the time in Britain. This could be attributed to the IRA’s activities in the UK during the 1970s. However, even before these events, it’s well-documented that in the 1960s the Irish and people of colour in Britain were equally discriminated against, as well as subject to verbal abuse. With this in mind, Sheila and Katy face disparagement on three separate issues.
But I digress.
When we first meet mother and daughter, a response to name-calling leads to an altercation and we see first-hand what have to deal with day-in, day-out. Life isn’t all grim for Katy, as she gets to spemd her free-time learning Irish dancing. Her footwork is fine – it’s just that keeping her arms by her side ‘feels wrong’. At home, while looking through her mother’s things, Katy finds a picture of her father – the first she has ever seen – which piques her interest. Now ‘Pandora’s Box’ has been opened and Sheila’s receiving pressure from elsewhere to come clean to Katy about her father…
In keeping with her character, McAteer demonstrates an impressive aptitude for Irish dancing and footwork in general. As well as playing supportive mother Sheila, Kenny portrays other key figures in Katy’s life – her friend and fellow dancer Julie, plus dance teacher Mrs Malloney. Similarly, Spicer appears in the play as two memorable characters: Katy’s ‘secret admirer’ Frankie and Julie’s mother Norma.
The synergy of McAteer’s script and Spicer’s direction really brings the Seventies to life – not only through the musical choices in the show and the pop culture references, but the unvarnished truth about the era. In this respects, the play mirrors the best qualities of Ayub Khan-Din’s East Is East – bittersweet, full of heart, but unflinching in depicting the harsher side of reality.
© Michael Davis 2019
The Guinness Girl runs at London Irish Centre (50-52 Camden Square, London, NW1 9XB) from 14th-17th March (4pm on Sunday).