Review: Belly Up, VAULT Festival

Belly Up follows Liberty Whitley (Julia Grogan) who is charged with the murder of her master’s son after he attempts to rape her. In a time where even the most meagre of crimes could be punished by death, manslaughter, even in self-defence, was punishable by hanging. 

Except that is for women who could ‘plead the belly’. 

Despite having never touched a penis in her life Libby decides to plea this way, but also forgets in her desperation that the plea requires you to be at least 4 months pregnant. 

The concept of this play is innovative and exciting. A lesbian who is secretly courting the fiancé of the  master’s son then murders said son and aims to get pregnant to avoid the death penalty for her crime.

The plot is a light-hearted exploration of Liberty’s journey to get pregnant in an all-female prison and is accompanied by a stellar soundtrack of orchestrated versions of Billie Eilish’s ‘Bad Guy’ to varying themes and emotions.

The comedy throughout is the play’s true strength. One liners such as “strung up from the gallows before you can say ‘up the duff’” portray Grogan and writing partner Lydia Higman’s quick-wit. Also, a particular highlight for me is the master’s son (Michael Bijok)’s wedding speech including “friends, romans, countrymen, lend me your ears” because who doesn’t enjoy a pretentious (not really) Shakespeare reference.

Furthermore, whilst comedic writing is one of this play’s key strengths, Grogan’s physical comedy is another. Grogan really makes the small space of ‘Forge’ at VAULT Festival her own, and entrances the audience with her seamless blend of seventeen-hundred’s sass and the modern, empowered female voice. 

Equally strong is Bijok’s performance as a plethora of characters including the hunch-backed jailguard who is not ready for commitment, a German jailguard wearing a black leather bondage restraint, and a flamboyant matronly figure who used to be an ‘expensive prostitute in Mayfair’. 

Yet despite its wit, flamboyance, and extensive character list this play is limited by its will to do everything. The plot itself is jam-packed with Liberty going from maid to new mother and reformed prisoner within the hour. 

The fast-paced plot in turn leaves little room for tension, thus taking away from the romantic relationship in the play and leaving kisses and romantic declarations flat and inauthentic. 

Finally, the closing speech where Liberty names the accomplishments of the women’s rights movement, whilst honourable in intention, seems a heavy-handed attempt at getting the writers’ political opinions into the piece and takes away from the power that the piece could have on its own. 

An hour of fun and a performance full to the brim with talent I am excited to see what Daring Hare Productions does next.