The cover of a recent reprint of Edna O’Brien’s landmark Irish novel, The Country Girls, makes it look like any number of chick lit novels: a pretty girl’s face, artfully shot in black and white: standard stuff. Yet it was the subject of controversy in its day, banned by the Irish censor on its publication in 1960 – copies of the book were burnt.
O’Brien’s lyrical coming-of-age tale committed the sin of depicting its female protagonist as an intelligent and sexual being. It’s a far spikier piece of writing than that identikit cover lets on.
Kate and Baba are village girls who have grown up together. They emerge from their rigid convent education itching to experience the world and leave together for life in Dublin.
Lisa Blair’s production, using O’Brien’s revised stage adaptation of her own novel, captures this sense of gentle rebellion and wonder. It’s full of delightful details – like the nuns who advise the girls to face south while changing into their nightgowns, lest they “surprise one another” – and moments of melancholy.
The soft-spoken Mr Gentleman, married and a good deal older, takes a shine to Kate; while her disappointment is inevitable it is no less painful and revelatory.
Grace Molony making her professional stage debut, is luminous as Kate. There’s a wonderful rapport between her and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman as the more confident Baba. Hulme-Beaman injects a wayward energy into the slightly stately production and her presence is missed when she’s not on stage. But Molony, in her quieter way, is no less captivating. She captures Kate’s shift from a bookish and callow, motherless girl to a young woman who understands something more of men, the world and her place in it.
Like too many page-to-stage adaptions, Blair’s production feels overly bitty. Some scenes could do with more room to breathe – including the moment when a couple of spivs try to get into the girls’ knickers – and there’s not much in the way of dramatic tension. Valery Schatz’s Mr Gentlemen is something of a void, albeit one with a silken tongue. Richard Kent’s mossed-stone set also better evokes the world the girls are running from than the world to which they’re running.
But while the production is a gentle, somewhat episodic and slow to warm up, it does get across something of the essence of the novel, the awakening of Kate, the making of her. The girls are charged with protecting their innocence. It is something that can be taken from them and if it is, they will pay the price. In this way it feels dismayingly resonant. In Molony, it has at its heart a young actor making her mark, and this feels entirely right.