This jam-packed historical comedy from Julia Grogan and Lydia Higman is full of unexpected twists.
Liberty Whitley (Grogan), orphaned, and brought up as a maid in a wealthy Chelsea family, has fallen in love with the soon-to-be-married lady of the house (Anna Brindle). Following an attempted rape, Liberty kills the husband-to-be (Michael Bijok) in self-defence and finds herself in Newgate prison pleading her belly to avoid hanging. The thing is she’s without child and, as a lesbian in a women’s prison, can’t find anyone to get her pregnant.
A cast of five play multiple roles. Bikoj is a stand-out, playing everything from Igor-esque jail keeper to German sex-dungeon constable. At times some of the characters get lost in the commotion, but the hard-working cast deals skilfully with the fast scene and costume changes.
Composer Georgina Lloyd-Owen uses Billie Eilish’s Bad Guy as a recurring theme adding 18th-century strings to the arrangement. Sound editor Emily Linden also does good work, though there are some issues with volume. Lauren Dickson’s staging is limited by a difficult space that looks better suited to stand-up comedy rather than theatre.
Belly Up is great fun to watch though it’s feminist, socialist message could be played more delicately. There is an awful lot going on, and Liberty’s sexuality feels like a plot driver rather than an integral part of the story or her character. More space is needed to build tension and allow chemistry to develop in the love scenes.