A tale of Irish society-

a review of “Country Girls” in the Abbey Theatre, Dublin

by Lara Studer

Imagine a stage with a thrilled girl named Kate, who raves about her scholarship for the St. Andrews School, beaming about her awaiting opportunity and future. But everybody just stands around her, silent, because they don’t dare to say that her mother just died.

The play “Country Girls” written and adapted for the stage by Edna O´Brien opens with a strong impression on its audience. The book originally published in 1960 was banned in Ireland by censorship law for its sexually explicit content and the books have been burned in publicly.
The author who acclaimed international recognition was basically unknown in her home country, from which she liberated herself like her main character.

Kate decides she wants to go the St. Andrews School even when her alcoholic father tries to keep her back, claiming they cannot effort to buy her the school uniform. She goes on to the school with her best friend Baba, who she fiercely loves but also fears. First off Kate seems to acclimate her perfectly in this nun-run school, she even befriends one of the nuns, Sister Mary. But then the rebellious Baba strikes with an act of blasphemy and both girls have to leave to school, heading to Dublin on their own now.

The play is directed by Graham McLaren, one of the Abbey Theatre directors since 2016. The main protagonist Kate is played by Grace Collender, who is new to the Abbey Stage and her strongminded best friend Baba is played by Lola Pettwigrew. But the focus is not only on the main cast but also on its minor characters who often play more than one role.

Even with its limited space, the play is choreographed in an almost perfect and most efficient way. The actors not only act, but they also sing and dance to accentuate the characters emotional states.

Sequences are voiced by the author itself and the music is played in the background to support the play. The border to a musical is fluent.

And there is another remarkable aspect of this play: the stage performance of light and probs. Nothing which is usually regarded as important as the acting, in this case, the prob are literally flying from the ceiling down to the stage, synchronized with lighting and the movements of the actors. This is so precisely clocked it does not only help the play but also makes a strong impression of itself, leave the audience back stunned in their seats.
The probs and stage are kept in various shade of grey, the costumes of the main and minor character are in a contemporary style of the 50ties in mostly pastel, dull colour. Except when Kate gets a pair of red pumps, they stand out like the magic ones of Dorothy in the Wizard of Oz.

Coming back to the acting, it is convincing when Grace Collender plays Kate, who falls in love with Mr. Gentleman, a married man. How she wants to believe in real love and get disappointed by it. Still, something is amiss in her performance. Her character alters throughout the story but her acting doesn’t as much.

There are powerful, memorable moments when she confronts her father about her decisions in life which he cannot accept. That’s the moment the actor shows burning passion and energy which are somehow lacking in other situations.

Also, her side character Baba is played well but also bland. Baba is always the same frivolous young woman, constantly looking for love and adventure. Her puns make you laugh heartily, but she does not have any other motivation than just having fun. She is a classic case of the sidekick who supports the continuity of the story.

Still, Country Girls is very well produced play of a journey of a lonely girl with big ambitions and it looks back in times where being emancipated as a woman was not normal and socially accepted.

The play leaves its audience back with a feeling of being entertained but also equipped with the knowledge of how much Irelands society has evolved and improved, but also how much the classical way of theatre-making has changed.

The Country Girl is now playing in the Abbey Theatre in Dublin till the 4th May and will also appear on the stage in Cork, Galway, and Limerick.