Martin Shaw heads up the cast of this 1950s drama about a leading actor battling the demon drink. Set in New York and Boston in 1950, 'The Country Girl' starts with an audition for a new stage play where the producer and director are discussing the casting for the lead. Director Bernie Dodd, recently divorced and with a stake in the financial success of the production, is intent on getting Frank Elgin (Martin Shaw) to play the part. The problem is that Elgin's career has been blighted by alcohol which means few producers are keen to hire him. But Elgin is Dodd's hero and the director wins the battle to have him star in his new show.
While we watch Elgin trying to cope with his demons and the demands of an important role, we also witness conflict and tension in the relationship between Elgin's long-suffering wife, Georgie (played by Jenny Seagrove) and director Dodd (Mark Letheren). There's obvious sexual tension between these two almost from the moment they clap eyes on each other. But Dodd gets the idea into his head that it's Georgie who is holding back Elgin, making him dependent on her and in the process blighting his career.
It's hard to describe an authoritative and powerful actor playing an authoritative and powerful actor. But that's the case here. If you're confused, suffice it to say that Martin Shaw has the stature and acting ability to convince and he does. Back in 1983 when the same producer (Bill Kenwright) had a hit with the same play, Mr Shaw played director Bernie Dodd. Mr Shaw makes the transition to the lead role look pretty easy, and when Frank caves in when under pressure, Mr Shaw presents us with a drunk who doesn't just roll around all over the apron, but still has the inbred ability to act, at least until he collapses.
Jenny Seagrove as the maligned Georgie is the 'Country Girl' from the title. Though we're told that she read copiously in her youth, she seemed rather too well-educated and middle class – but maybe that can be accounted for by living with an actor. More importantly, Ms Seagrove didn't seem quite as harrowed by the experience of living with a drunkard as one might expect. Those niggles aside, we do get a strong sense of devotion and dignity from her performance. Mark Letheren is in good form as the ambitious director, Dodd, who wrongly jumps to conclusions about Georgie, based more on his own recent marital experiences than anything else.
Designer Scott Pask must have relished the challenge of recreating the 1950s backstage scenes complete with ropes and sand bags for the fly system as well as the other behind-the-scenes accoutrements. The result is a fine set with some very nice art deco detailing. The scene changes are woven into the action rather then intruding into the flow of the story, and though they take a little time to effect, they don't drag down the pace.
Laughs are scarce in this play, and the few there are come largely from stage manager, Larry (excellently played by Peter Harding), who runs his stage with clockwork efficient whilst cosseting and protecting the actors.
Written by Clifford Odets, the play was a big Broadway success when it first appeared, and was also turned into a film in 1954 winning an Oscar for Grace Kelly who played the role of Georgie. In a way, that's a surprise to me because I never felt gripped in any way by the story. It does keep one's attention because we half expect something momentous to occur – like a murder or something of that order - but it never does. And Dodd's underlying motivation is telegraphed from his first meeting with Georgie, so come the final resolution we're left feeling rather underwhelmed, and wondering what all the fuss was about.
"I had never seen the play before and last night it knocked me for six with its emotional truth and extraordinarily powerful depiction of the devastation caused by alcoholism."
Charles Spencer for The Daily Telegraph
"There is much sting and sharp edges in The Country Girl."
Paul Callan for The Daily Express
"Lacklustre production ."
Fiona Mountford for The Evening Standard
"Odets wrote a gift part for a star actor, and it is one that [Martin] Shaw seizes avidly."
Michael Billington for The Guardian