girls and dolls

Derry Girls and Young Offenders stars team up for dark comedy set during the Troubles

The play is written by the Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee.

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TWO OF THE stars from two of Ireland’s biggest TV shows in recent years are to feature in a new play written by Derry Girls creator Lisa McGee.

In Girls and Dolls, Jamie-Lee O’Donnell (of Derry Girls) and Jennifer Barry (of The Young Offenders) play two best friends, Emma and Clare, who are thick as thieves in 1980 Derry. But something happens that summer which affects their lives and which they struggle to make sense of years later. 

Lisa McGee is one of the most exciting people writing for TV at the moment (Derry Girls was the most-watched TV series ever in Northern Ireland), and Girls and Dolls – which was her debut play – showed that she has always been intent on creating interesting and layered work that focuses on women’s lives.

She frequently sets her work in Derry during the Troubles, but instead of focusing on the political activity, she looks at the lives of everyday people during such a heightened time. 

‘It’ll test us but it’s going to be good.’

That Barry and O’Donnell were drawn to McGee’s play is no surprise given that they are both young women (Barry is just 17 and O’Donnell is in her mid-twenties) who are known for playing strong females in the shows that made them famous.

As they prepared the show for the Gaiety stage, they told about the challenges that exist for young female actors working today. 

“It’s a dark comedy,” says Derry native O’Donnell of the play. “I think it does that really lovely Irish thing were people see the humour in things that aren’t necessarily funny, almost as a coping mechanism, and I find stuff like that really relatable to watch. These two girls are taking the audience on a journey about this time in their lives.”

Adds Barry: “There’s layers to it.”

The pair portray all the characters in the play – from young children to older men and women. “It’s going to be a challenge for us but it’ll be worth it,” says Barry. 

Testing roles are good when you’re an actor, says O’Donnell. “You want to get roles that are going to be challenging.”

But there’s more to it than that – what a play like this demonstrates is that there is a need for more challenging roles for women.

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What it has highlighted for O’Donnell is the need for nuanced female roles on stage.

“It’s nice to be doing a show like this where it’s two women and we’re not talking about men, or boyfriends or husbands or potential husbands,” she says.

Obviously there’s so much more to female relationships and unfortunately what we see sometimes that’s portrayed on TV and stage [is not like that], so it’s nice to have this show.

Barry agrees: “It’s two strong girls.”

They both feel that McGee portrays women’s lives as they really are. “It’s a bit more reflective of the women I know, to look at the different aspects of female relationships and female behaviour with each other,” says O’Donnell. “It’s more reflective of what I would know as opposed to just sitting around talking about men all day… so it’s exciting.”

O’Donnell says she gets bored of watching plays or TV shows that just show women in one way. “Because that’s not my life, that’s not anybody I’ve ever known. So I think it’s nice for stuff like this to go into the more realistic elements of a female relationships and female friendship.”

‘One-dimensional with big boobs’

O’Donnell says been offered some roles “where it is just the one-dimensional character with big boobs”, she says. “Each to their own, but a couple of times I’ve said I’m not going to bother going for that, thank you for the offer or the invite to the audition. Because I feel there are enough women like that in film already or on telly and there’s no point in me adding to it.”

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“I appreciate that women are sexual and they have a sexuality and I understand that’s powerful and that’s important, but to have that as the only aspect of a woman’s character is just boring to watch for me, it’s just so typical and so clearly not written by a woman.”

That’s not reflective of life, women are just not walking around being sexual or walking around being the nagging wife or the pregnant [woman]. There’s so much more aspects to life.

In the Young Offenders, Barry’s character is a strong and feisty teenager. “The girls in Cork city are just known for being mean and being saucy pups, like,” she laughs. “And so that’s what I based my audition tape off of, but really [at the time] I would have liked to play a softer character like Linda. I’m glad I got Siobhan. It’s Siobhan telling Jock [what to do], not Jock telling Siobhan.”

Barry is just a teenager, and will sit her Leaving Cert next year. The next 12 months will be a fine balancing act for her.

“It’s been tiring – you have to push through and push through school and everything, but I wouldn’t do anything else.” She doesn’t intend on studying acting after she finishes her exams, feeling grateful for the opportunities she’s gotten and wanting to take advantage of them.

“I’ll do anything as long as I can act,” she says.

As for O’Donnell, she’s been in the acting business for a number of years, and is gearing up for the filming of season two of Derry Girls. It’s planned to take place in October. 

Barry maintains that it’s not that strange to have a teen like her in this situation – a teen who’s into acting, anyway. “It’s not unusual, it’s just I suppose being a girl from West Cork and being thrown out there like that, that’s unusual.” She’s “taking all the advice I can get from everyone” about how to progress in her career.

“It’s been a dream – like it doesn’t feel real,” she says. “People have been nice and people have been not nice and you learn very quickly to keep your cards close to your chest.”

‘Yous are really funny’

Both she and O’Donnell still get stopped in the street by people who are fans of their characters Siobhan and Michelle, and O’Donnell believes that McGee’s nuanced portrayal of teenage girls appeals to a broad audience.

“There’s as many men in their 50s and 60s coming up to me in the street saying it’s brilliant as there are 14-15 year old girls saying it’s brilliant,” she says. “I do think that comes down to the quality of the writing.”

She adds: “The amount of fellas who say ‘yous were really funny’, it’s almost like they can’t believe that girls were so funny.”

Girls and Dolls runs at the Gaiety Theatre from 11 – 15 September.For more information and tickets, see the Gaiety website.

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