Theatre Review: The Country Girl

Posted on: 22 October 2010 by Mark O'haire

Marriage, acting and alcoholism may not be interlinked but these are the issues which come under the spotlight in Clifford Odets’ 1954 backstage drama The Country Girl, which is revived in an absorbing new production directed by Rufus Norris at the Apollo Theatre in Shaftesbury Avenue.

The play offers a revealing insight into the turbulent lives of a married couple whose relationship is tested to the limit when a shot at stardom exposes their deep-rooted flaws. Although entitled The Country Girl, the protagonist is in fact washed-up actor Frank Elgin, a desperate and demanding alcoholic, who is offered a comeback chance to star in the next Broadway play by hotshot director Bernie Dodd. Believing the actor’s long-suffering wife Georgie (the Country Girl of the title) is the reason for his decline, Bernie strikes up a stormy relationship with her – but in 1950s New York how far will a woman go to redeem the man she loves?

This work, which was turned into an Oscar-winning film featuring Grace Kelly in her first screen role, and is the first production on the London stage for many years, has an emotional truth that makes us fully engaged with the characters, and also provides a moving depiction of the devastation wrought by alcohol. Although the play at times feels a bit underpowered, director Rufus Norris skilfully manages to combine dramatic tension with sudden shafts of wit. When asked why the play-within-a-play doesn’t get a top film star to play the title role, the producer replies ‘you would have to look in heaven, not Hollywood, to find him!’ The play is also funny in its portrayal of the crises and tantrums that occur in many a Broadway-bound production.

But it is the splendid performances by Martin Shaw (he originally played the young director Bernie 27 years ago on the stage) as the volatile, self-pitying and bombastic Frank, by turns pathetic, yet determined; Jenny Seagrove as his much put-upon wife Georgie, desperate to keep him on the straight and narrow; and Mark Letheren as Bernie Dodd, who has firm faith in Frank despite the odds against him, that really bring this play so vividly to life.

In short then a refined, mature drama that manages to be both psychologically complex and insightful and certainly provides a rewarding evening in the theatre.

By Laurence Green

Plays until February 26.
Box office: 0844 412 4658
Press: 020 8959 9980

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