Monday 25 March 2019

The original country girl takes centre stage in the capital

The Country Girls

Abbey Theatre, Dublin Until April 6, then Cork Opera House (Apr 16-20), Town Hall Theatre, Galway (Apr 23-27) and Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick (Apr 30-May 4)

Pals: Grace Collender and Lola Petticrew in Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.
Pals: Grace Collender and Lola Petticrew in Edna O'Brien's The Country Girls. Photo: Ros Kavanagh.

Katy Hayes

There is no shortage nowadays of sophisticated writing about the experience of young Irish women finding the run of themselves in big cities. But when Edna O'Brien published The Country Girls in 1960, it was a glass of cool water offered to a parched readership.

Though immediately banned, the book has been core reading for young women for decades. Dublin City Council has selected The Country Girls Trilogy as its One City One Book title for 2019. About time. O'Brien's writing is peerless in capturing a key Irish experience: that of migration from the countryside to the capital.

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Directed by Graham McLaren, with a new adaptation by O'Brien herself, the show uses graceful movement, music and design to smooth over the episodic and ultimately novelistic narrative shape. Following the death of her mother, Kate wins a scholarship to boarding school. Grace Collender plays the clever and sensitive teenager with a touching sincerity; a spirited Lola Petticrew plays the man-mad best friend Baba who gets them expelled from school.

The production foregrounds Kate's relationship with her dead mother, played with emphasis on the singing by Lisa Lambe, giving the show a somewhat sentimental core. This is not at all the tone of the book, which is full of rage against the humiliations of being Irish and female. By far, the more interesting dynamic is between Kate and her father, played effectively by Aidan Kelly with a good amount of thug. Mr Gentleman (Steven McCarthy), the older married man whom Kate falls in love with, is hidden behind large, cartoonish glasses. He removes them for the central romantic scene, when McCarthy can assert himself more effectively.

Francis O'Connor's graceful set has furniture flown in from above, facilitating rapid scene changes, but it has to offset its stylish gains against its atmospheric losses. Ray Harman's intriguing score puts a delightful modern spin on trad-music undercurrents, successfully creating a dialogue between the music of the 1950s and a more contemporary sound - an area of the production where the artistry sheds nostalgia and moves into a welcome and vigorous dialogue with the present.

Though aspects of the production are uncertain, these spirited country girls are indestructible. They are firmly embedded in Irish popular consciousness. O'Brien herself received a rapturous hand on opening night: the original country girl, now taking a well-deserved position centre stage in the nation's capital.


Life lessons in how to bury a dead cat


The Ark, Dublin Until Mar 31

Using curiosity as a primary tool of drama, Kate Heffernan's 50-minute new play for children (8+) is an emotionally sturdy and highly entertaining investigation into how kids deal with the death of a pet. Jo's cat Rhino has died; he and his pal Rayy, both of late primary-school age, go to a secluded boggy area to dig a grave.

In Lian Bell's inventive set, the bog hinterland is represented by large projected images; the grave is a big cardboard box. The grave-digging becomes a form of excavation. Rayy uncovers a variety of curious objects from the ground, all covered in mucky peat. These are washed by Jo, and the children slowly realise, and inventively guess, what precisely the objects are.

Some are dated: a milk carton with a best-before date and an old Irish coin, thus indicating how long they have been in the ground.

Kwaku Fortune plays Rayy as happy-go-lucky, in contrast with Curtis-Lee Ashqar's gently bruised Jo. Tim Crouch directs with inventive use of technology but underpinned by classic theatrical tricks of conflict and revelation.

Plenty of interaction keeps the young audience riveted. When asked if they were the first person on earth, what is the first thing they would invent, one livewire piped up "Wi-Fi". A smart show for smart kids.

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