I have never read ‘The Country Girls’ by Edna O’Brien. This book was published in 1960, and was the debut novel by the Clare writer. Notorious upon its release for its depiction of the sexual awakening of a pair of young Irish women in catholic Ireland, it was banned by the censorship board for being a dirty, filthy book. Naturally when read through the prism of 2019, it is very tame indeed. Well the book has been adapted by the Abbey Theatre. Last night I went to see it.
The tale concerns two rural, Irish teenage girls Kate Brady (Grace Collender) and Barbara ‘Baba’ Brennan (Lola Petticrew), who are sent to boarding school together. Kathleen has won a scholarship to the school, after her beloved mother’s recent drowning. Meanwhile her father is a feckless, violent alcoholic. She befriends one of the younger nuns at the convent school (this friendship has a slightly lesbian undercurrent), and carries on a dalliance with a local married gentlemen – conveniently called Mr. Gentleman. Set over a number of years, it follows the girls to Dublin where they begin their careers, and start meeting and dating men. Upon her betrayal by Mr. Gentleman, Katheen vows to leave Ireland to pursue her dream of a writing career in London, before the stifling nature of Irish society suffocates her.
It was a woefully lacklustre production.
The fact that the controversy surrounding the book is a matter of historical curiosity in the present time, is not relevant here. Plays and books set, or written in the past do not need to be ‘current’. It helps a lot if they are engaging, and when they resonate with an audience. A good story, told with care is always captivating. ‘The Country Girls’ was boring and turgid, which is all the more disappointing seeing as it was adapted for the stage by O’Brien herself.
The problems were manifold. Kate is a 2-note character – simpering and cloying. Even though she ages from about sixteen to early twenties, there is little evidence of her character’s emotional growth throughout the play. A far more interesting character and performance was that of Baba Brennan (played by Lola Petticrew) which was a highlight in the play. I wished that this character was the centre of the story– as it was a far feistier and more complex role. Lisa Lambe (as Kate’s mother) gave the same performance as she has given in ‘Jimmy’s Hall’ over the past two years. It was fine for that show but a bit confusing to see it replicated again as a different character. Kate’s father (played by Aidan Kelly), was a completely over the top character. Worst of all was the character of Mr. Gentleman (Steven McCarty) . It seems incomprehensible that Kate would love this character who had the charisma of a glass of flat, warm, Diet Coke. McCarthy and Muiris Crowley (as farm hand Hickey) would each have been far more persuasive had they swapped roles.
The set was simple – all furniture suspended in the ceiling, rising and falling as it was needed. The drab costumes were in keeping with the drab setting. And a special note of disapproval to whoever decided that the nun characters wear fitted, knee-length habits with high-heeled shoes. This not how 1950s nuns were meant to dress. Was there a sale on in the costume shop? It would appear so.
The director was Graham McLaren who is also the Artistic Director of the Abbey. It is quite worrying that McLaren is entrusted with the growth and development of the national theatre of Ireland if he believes that this adaptation is an appropriate way to spend taxpayers’ money.
Dreary, pedestrian and muted ‘The Country Girls’ will limp along in the Abbey Theatre until the 6th of April, before hauling its tired old bones to Cork, Galway and Limerick during the months of April and May.
Opinions are like arseholes, and I have expressed mine, and people can take or leave. I have two words to advise on ‘The Country Girls’ – miss it.