The Country Girl

Clifford Odets
Apollo Theatre
(2010)

The Country Girl production photo

Odets' lively and theatrical play is about theatre life in 1950, the date it premiered on Broadway. Its central role, a great actor whose career has been ruined by drink, is an opportunity for bravura acting that Martin Shaw seizes with both hands but his Frank Elgin also shows us the many facets that make up the man: his dependence, the tissue of falsehoods that he presents to outsiders, his terror, his desperation and a glimpse of the charm which he must have had when he met and married his 'country girl'.

Whizz-kid director Bernie has just lost the lead in his new show to Hollywood and, bowled over by Frank's performances in earlier days, wants to risk him as the replacement. Mark Letheren makes him a shouter, his way of claiming authority and hiding his own doubts, in contrast to Phil Cook's pessimistic producer who is dead against the idea. So too is Frank, but his wife wants him to do it.

Can Frank succeed? There are only three weeks and two days before they open. Is wife Georgie what holds him together or is she the problem? Is she the loyal little woman or as much a control freak as Bernie? Jenny Seagrove plays her so that you are not quite sure; you can feel her frustration beneath her restraint. It is herself as much as Frank she's having to control. These people are so busy coping with the situations they are in that there is little space for warmth around except from Peter Harding's stage manager Larry: there is a lovely moment when he orders the producer out of 'his' theatre if he goes on abusing the actor.

It gets pretty melodramatic with Shaw throwing chairs about but it is spot-on as a picture of how low alcohol dependence can bring a man and, clichéd stage story though this may be, it does ring true with its writer (Luke Shaw) bashing out new scenes on the second night of the Boston opening, the producer lining up another actor ready to take over before they go to Broadway and new ingénue (Thomasin Rand) exhibiting her inexperience.

As scenes move between backstage, the Elgin's apartment and theatre dressing rooms designer Scott Pask has kept things very theatrical with flown or trucked in units within a back-stage set dominated by dock doors. Director Rufus Norris has orchestrated each change as though the stage crew are part of the play. However illogical to emphasise a 'real' place being set up on stage, it works theatrically in the moment and, perhaps intentionally, reflects just how much these characters are performers in their private lives.

Though centred on Shaw, who gives us both the powerful dramatic actor in full flood and a moving portrayal of him at his lowest, this is no isolated star performance. Norris has given due weight to all the characters and made the most of comic moments but, though we want to see if anyone will crack and whether Frank can pull it off, we are not really made to care about any of these people, the production does not make one emotionally involved and strangely we never quite discover why Georgie is Frank's 'country girl'.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton