Theatre review: The Country Girls at The Abbey, Dublin

The Country Girls

The Abbey Theatre
Written by Edna O'Brien
Director: Graham McLaren
Cast: Grace Collender, Muiris Crowley, Megan Cusack, Aron Hegarty, Aidan Kelly, Lisa Lambe, Catriona Loughlin, Steven McCarthy, Bill Murphy, Mary O'Driscoll, Lola Petticrew

The Abbey Theatre, Dublin
13 March 2019

Adaptations of popular books to plays are a tricky proposition, particularly when it's one that has some notoriety as a once-banned text in Ireland. There are two challenges then for Edna O'Brien adapting her own novel The Country Girls for the Abbey Theatre stage; one is to translate the essence of a detailed narrative of where the personal ambitions of a young girl from the country differ from the expectations of Irish society in the 1950s, the other is to find a way to make the content still shocking in this day and age.

As it turns out, shocking nuns by reading the famous closing lines of 'The Dead' from Dubliners by the "antichrist" James Joyce might not carry the same impact to the general public in Ireland today (although from experience I can tell you there are still some of an older generation who have been brought up to retain this view) and the irony of O'Brien's books suffering the same fate is not missed. There are however clearly some other aspects around a woman who knows her own mind and decides to push against social conservatism of Ireland and the traditional role of a woman that is still very much regarded in some quarters as rather scandalous.

There are two ways (at least) of scandalising society in the time of The Country Girls; one is to be sexually liberated and the other is to be rather too fond of poetry and literature and susceptible to the 'funny ideas' that might turn the head of a romantic young schoolgirl. That's the two paths that set two friends Kathleen and Barbara, two girls keen to escape the confines of life in the country, off on the road to perdition. To England, obviously...

Baba and Kate might have a common aim, but they have two very different ways of getting there. Baba is from a well-off family and doesn't intend to sacrifice the luxuries she is used to, 'paying her way' by hooking up with wealthy older sugar daddies who can keep her supplied with jewellery, champagne, expensive clothes and dining in fine restaurants. Kate is from a broken family, her father a drunk who is never there, so when her mother dies in a boating accident, Kate is determined to make it on her own.

The bookish Kate is fortunate to get a scholarship that grants her an education at St Enda's, a school run by nuns. Baba's parents of course are able to pay for her education there. Despite very different personalities and attitudes towards life, the girls continue to be friends, even when Baba gets them both expelled for a prank to scandalise the nuns. Living in Dublin, it's their views on men that set them apart, Baba with her sugar daddies, Kate with Mr Gentleman, a married man from home who is bound to let her down.

In essence that's all that The Country Girls is about really, but O'Brien's adaptation of her own work does well to encapsulate a young woman's early experiences of life into an hour and forty-five minutes. It's unreasonable to expect a work from 1960 to have the same impact today, but to go by audience reactions it's clear that some attitudes persist and the idea of a young woman being assertive, mocking the church and expressing her own individuality is still shocking to some, so The Country Girls is more than just about capturing a time of outdated views.

Likewise the cultural references, the music and the songs that are performed are more than just a way to evoke the past. Gerard Manley Hopkins, James Joyce, Wuthering Heights, 'She Moved Through The Fair' all touch deeply on a young woman's romantic experience and expectations. It's in this aspect - the traditional Irish songs in particular - that the play is most successful and establishes a further dimension that distinguishes it from the original novel, but the use of movement and ensemble work to establish place and character is also excellent. With props on wires lowered down onto the stage, the play runs fluidly without an interval, but the way the props hang above the stage - a table, a washing-line, a Christmas tree, a statue of Our Lady hanging there like icons or points of memory - also contributes to the mood of the piece.

Playing naive young country girls is tricky and could appear 'stagey', but there are good performances from Grace Collender and Lola Petticrew. Petticrew's Baba in particular is lively and natural and occasionally and intentionally annoying as a disruptive influence. Playing Kathy's mother, her memory so important to the young girl, the Irish singer and actress Lisa Lambe not unexpectedly gives a stunning performance that captures everything that it should, and Aidan Kelly as her father provides the necessary counterweight to the forces that drive Kathy onward. But there's good ensemble work with a cast slipping into and out of roles that are well defined and purposeful. As an adaptation The Country Girls works well, is impressively staged and performed, and still has thoughtful ideas to present as we re-evaluate Ireland's past today.

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