Edna O’Brien is one of those very famous authors whom absolutely no one I know has ever read. “What play are we seeing for the matinee in Chichester?” asked Mrs Chrisparkle showing surprising interest a couple of hours before curtain-up. “The Country Girls”, I replied, “it’s an adaptation of that book by Edna O’Thingy…” She looked blankly at me, but I don’t think she would have been any the wiser if I’d remembered her surname. “It’s a very famous book” I added, although by then Mrs C was back on the Guardian website.
You are, of course, much better informed, gentle reader, and will be aware that The Country Girls was Edna O’Brien’s debut novel back in 1960 and she’s written around 40 books in all, including short stories, poetry, non-fiction as well as her best-selling novels. The book was banned by the Irish censor upon publication, so it must be doing something right. Set in the West of Ireland in the 1950s, the first act introduces us to Kate and Baba, two girls subjected to the full convent regime of education and repression; we see Kate’s friendship with the young Sister Mary; and the girls’ shameful expulsion when some sexual teasing goes wrong. The second act sees the girls in Dublin, freed from their shackles and finding their own way; meeting unsuitable men and struggling to pay the rent. Whilst the story really builds beautifully in the first act, and you really get to understand the main characters and their motivations very well; for me the play rather fizzled out in the second act, as whatever relationships they had came to nought.
Nevertheless, it’s still a very entertaining play, which gives you a very good insight into what life was like in Ireland in the 1950s, and how very different the country and the city life were. Fathers were either kind and helpful or drunk and violent; nuns were either warm-hearted or sadists. Similarly, girls were either like Kate – ambitious and innocent, or like Baba – reckless and sinful; and both were equally entertaining for the audience to watch. Little moments, like when Baba buys an ice-cream when they first arrive in Dublin, speak volumes and paint a much bigger picture than the words of the play alone can do. Isobel Waller-Bridge has composed some very elegant but inevitably sombre music which recurs throughout the piece and for me had the effect of bringing the mood down, as if preparing us in advance for some great tragedy. Call me shallow, but I’d have killed for a little fiddle and a tin whistle.
The play is dominated, wonderfully, by the brilliant performance of Grace Molony as Kate. From the very first scene she captures your heart and you spend the next two and a half hours willing her to succeed and survive at everything life throws at her. Both as a gullible girl and an out-of-place young woman, Ms Molony expresses so much about Kate’s character without even having to say a word. Her conversations with Mary are charming – a delightful performance from Jade Yourell; and as she opens up to Rachel Atkins’ superbly Germanic Joanna you see her becoming an independent woman, holding her own opinions whilst still being kind and thoughtful. It’s a beautiful performance.
Genevieve Hulme-Beaman’s Baba is an amusingly irreverent character; the archetypal naughtiest girl in the school, always chirpy with an answer for everything. She longs to lead Kate astray in Dublin, but when she finds she cramps her style, it’s easy for this Baba simply to dump her. Again, it was a very realistic presentation of a spirited young woman, desperate to make her way without any restrictions, and it was a joy to watch her; even though we thought her re-appearance at the end of the play was rather improbable. The remainder of the cast give a great ensemble performance to suggest the stifling backwardness of the countryside and the diversity of Dublin.
I’d have liked the story to have a bit more oomph in the second half, but that’s not to say it wasn’t a very enjoyable, intelligent and rewarding piece of drama that leaves you much better informed about Ireland in the 50s. It’s on until 8th July.
Production photos by Manual Harlan