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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE COUNTRY GIRL
at the Apollo

PLAY ABOUT A PLAY
By JOHN NATHAN


There can be few characters more perfectly primed for redemption than Clifford Odets’ washed-up, middle-aged alcoholic actor Frank Elgin.
 
Tough, young director Bernie Dodd (Mark Letheren) is betting his reputation, and his producer’s money that Elgin (Martin Shaw) has the wherewithal to take Dodd's production from Boston to Broadway while staying off the booze.
 
Will Bernie’s faith in Frank be vindicated? Will Frank fall off the wagon only to drag himself back on again? Will all seemingly be lost until the very last moment?
 
Put it this way – when Odets wrote The Country Girl in 1950, he needed a hit. Recently divorced, he had a son and a disabled daughter to care for. He set to write a crowd-pleaser and dashed off a drama that was intended to appeal to as wide an audience as possible, complete with a satisfyingly up-beat ending. The Country Girl turned out to be Odets' most revived play. So yes, Frank's story holds few surprises.
 
But where the play takes an unexpected turn is in its change of focus, from Frank and his dysfunctional relationship with Georgie (Jenny Seagrove), the actor’s long-suffering wife, to the growing attraction between Georgie and her husband’s hard-nosed director.
 
True, the play struggles to convince that Bernie was ever justified in seeing Frank’s wife as a threat to his production and Frank's recovery. Jealousy is Bernie's lame accusation. And there is no hint from Seagrove's Georgie that her motives could ever be more maligned than benign. So it seems that what Odets has created is a row created merely for his protagonists to overcome.
 
But for anyone interested in theatre there are some telling observations about acting and directing here. And helping the suspension of disbelief is a superbly in-form Letheren, who transmits the kind of single-minded ambition that frankly doesn’t give a damn if the innocents get hurt.
 
Indeed, it is only when Letheren is on stage that the play crackles into life. With headliners Shaw and Seagrove the production merely smolders. For some reason Shaw opts to say his lines in a gravely, actorly growl. That he can't sustain it for the play's two and a half hours is a good thing, as it is almost as hard on our ear as it must be on his throat. Seagrove meanwhile is on solid if unadventurous form, transmitting the world-weary, haunted sadness of a wife who has had to mother her husband.
 
Beyond the acting Norris’ production gives a good account of the risks and pressures involved in knocking a play into shape, as well as the kind of atmosphere in which artists become defensive and aggressive. On that level, this is a gripping, unglamorous portrayal of the sheer hard graft that goes into creating a play. And mindful that this is a play about the business of making a play, Norris cleverly deploys the cast as scene changers, with Peter Harding’s polite and steely stage manager directing the furniture-moving human traffic. Theatre lovers will enjoy.
 


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