Written by Julia Grogan and Lydia Higman, Belly Up was first performed as part of the 2020 Vaults Festival. This Turbine Theatre version is an evolution and expansion of the 2020 show, and clearly takes on board learnings from that run. The storylines have been developed and the overall themes and messages have been clarified. This is a show that has gone from being outrageous and funny, to being even funnier while blending in surprisingly poignant moments. I can’t deny how much I love a show that has the power to make me both laugh and cry. Grogan and Higman have done a wonderful job of honing this invigoratingly intelligent, unapologetically inappropriate show.
Belly Up tells the story of maid Liberty Whitley (perfectly played by Julia Grogan) who in the late 18th Century (George III is in power) is sentenced to death for bludgeoning her master to death when he tries to rape her. To avoid the noose she pleads the belly, the only problem is she is a virgin and she is being taken straight to prison, how is she going to get herself pregnant and avoid going straight to the gallows? We follow her adventures in Newgate as she attempts to find the right father for her baby. Things are made all the more complicated by her sexual awakening, as she falls in love with a female inmate.
This is a highly energetic show. It is worth taking your seats 5-10 minutes early to enjoy the wonderful warm-up act, made up of musician Lydia Higman and the vocally magnificent Emmy Stonelake. They are the perfect cover band to get the audience in the mood, and the musical set up flows seamlessly into the show itself. This is an unapologetically raucous and inappropriate show, the humour comes quick and fast, and is packed full of knowing anachronisms and modern slang, with the established rule of law at the time mocked, even as its pitiless brutality is exposed.
While Grogan plays Liberty throughout the piece, the rest of the cast take on multiple roles. Fanta Barrie is brilliantly spikey, smart and intimidating as Liberty’s love interest. Michael Bijok is a chameleonlike comedic actor, seamlessly going from rapist master, to gay best friend, with an assorted array of colourful characters in-between. Melissa Knighton is sympathetic as Liberty’s first cellmate, creepy as the unfortunate Keith, and hilarious as mad King George. Emmy Stonelake has a compelling presence throughout, whether singing or performing, and her Lady Desire positively smoulders. She has a beautiful and powerful voice, it is a joy to listen to.
Rachel Lemon’s direction is flawless, despite the challenges and complexity of the piece. She fully exploits the comedy in the piece, drawing out high energy and hilarious performances from a supremely talented cast. Lydia Higman’s music is given space to shine through, beautifully scoring the shifting moods of the piece. But what is most surprising about this raucous comedy is how it seduces you into really caring about these characters. Belly Up has a sneakily moving underside, that makes the overall experience extremely satisfying.
Belly Up finishes its short run at the Turbine Theatre on Saturday 18th September, and is well worth catching if you can. I can only hope this show has future runs planned, frankly it’d be a crime if it didn’t. You can find out more or book tickets here: https://www.theturbinetheatre.com/whats-on/belly-up