How to make sense of an absence is the question troubling the unnamed woman in Gilly Campbell’s autobiographical play for Prime Cut Productions. Searching for traces of the father whose identity she never knew, Daughter (Abigail McGibbon) finds herself re-examining her life in her mid-40s.
“The least you could do is haunt me,” she says, directly challenging the father she never met, and whom her mother never saw again once she became pregnant in the 1970s. Yet clearly she is haunted, and in her solo performance McGibbon captures the confusion, anger and sadness of Daughter’s search for answers. Growing up she used to tell people that, “like Jesus”, she didn’t have a father. “God was my father.”
Directed by Emma Jordan, this is another compelling performance from McGibbon, founder member of the Belfast Ensemble who can currently be seen in David Ireland’s Sadie in a Lyric theatre production on BBC iPlayer. Effortlessly switching from adult to child, here she brings depths to a script that at times seems overexplanatory, and at other times has the reticence that autobiography sometimes requires.
Evoking the whispers and silences surrounding the mother’s abrupt disappearance when she left Northern Ireland for England to give birth, Katie Richardson’s pulsing soundtrack is all-enveloping. Images of dark country roads at night flash by, described by Daughter as “fragile land” with invisible borders. These are the roads that her father, a customs officer, policed as people criss-crossed the border between Derry and Donegal. Designer Ciaran Bagnall’s flickering projections of foliage and abstract winter landscapes fill the screen, creating the sense of a story and a quest that is much larger than one person.
In this highly personal debut play, Campbell is adding her voice to the many others on stage and in journalism currently confronting the painful legacy of shame and blame surrounding unmarried pregnancy in the recent past, both in Northern Ireland and the Republic. In exploring her mother’s past, she shows how political conflict during the Troubles complicated personal histories further: adding layers of secrecy regarding sexual relationships that crossed the sectarian divide, and compounding “all this stuff that was unsaid”.