The Country Girls

Holly Browne and Caoimhe O'Malley in 'The Country Girls' by Edna O' Brien. Photo: Conleth White

Holly Browne and Caoimhe O'Malley in 'The Country Girls' by Edna O' Brien. Photo: Conleth White

Edna O’Brien’s first novel, The Country Girls, originally published in the UK in 1960 was banned in Ireland for its then shocking portrayal of two young girls’ social and sexual exploits. Set in the 1950s in a parish in the West and then Dublin, the stage play expands on the novel dramatising the teenage years of the innocent and beautiful Kate Brady (Holly Browne) and her friend, the caustic and worldly wise Baba Brennan (Caoimhe O’Malley).

After the tragic death of Kate’s mother and the girls’ expulsion from school, Kate and Baba head to Dublin and a grubby life of dating married men who know all too well the price of dinner and drinks. Kate, however, evades these hawks and conducts an ill-fated affair with Mr Gentleman, a married solicitor from her home town who breaks her heart by returning to his wife. In desperate loneliness Kate takes up with a stranger who says he is a poet but whose interest is her body rather than her mind. After a disastrous one night stand and the sordid end of Kate’s physical and emotional innocence, it is Baba who remains true and the close of the play sees the girls boarding the ferry for a new life in London.

Under Mikel Murfi’s sensitive direction, Browne and O’Malley’s onstage relationship recreates the oscillating and fervid friendship of teenage girls charged with excessive hormones, ideals, sexual energy and self-absorption. Personifying the oftentimes cruel but eminently practical Baba, Caoimhe O’Malley’s performance is the ideal foil to Holly Browne’s luminous and emotional portrayal of Kate. The surrounding company of actors work with concentration, energy and unity to deliver O’Brien’s fast flowing dialogue and scenes, but Browne and O’Malley shine long after the final blackout.

Photo: Conleth WhiteO’Brien’s dialogue and characters are expressive and witty, and Murfi’s direction complements the text and energises the production with a physicality that sees the cast multi-role playing, singing, dancing, cycling and climbing over and through Ben Hennessy’s set. Red Kettle’s design team achieve a coup de théâtre with sound, set, costume and lighting illuminating the inherent lyricism of O’Brien’s dialogue. An array of objects, including an oversize statue of the Virgin Mary, a pair of red shoes and posters for a vampire film and a fortune teller hang above the set making the historical and symbolic context ever present and at times oppressive while a revolve placed centre stage maintains the energy of scenes that quickly transition. Hennessy’s minimal stage furniture includes twin wooden frames which provide performance platforms that are used to emphasise key moments of Kate’s disempowerment while a curved back flat, seemingly whitewashed but underpainted with purple, blue and yellow, stands behind a rough whitewashed floor to create an expansive canvas for Conleth White’s lighting design. In this pale landscape colours seem more garish and shocking – an optical illusion that is most effectively capitalised on in the scene following Kate’s liaison with her false poet. Pulsing beneath the visual design and performances is Trevor Knight’s soundscape which picks out the soft birdsong of the West of Ireland and the dirty echoes of Dublin streets.

Red Kettle’s production of The Country Girls captures Edna O’Brien’s celebration of youthful innocence and her lamentation that with such innocence and idealism coexists an extraordinary vulnerability. O’Brien’s adaptation transforms the novel dynamically reimagining the original narrative. The play enhances nuance, characters and detail so that, while the story is essentially the same, its re-expression is physical, sensual and original. Significantly, however, O’Brien subtly alters a pivotal scene in the novel where Mr Gentleman and Kate strip naked before their planned trip to Vienna. The stage directions state that Mr Gentleman must undress fully but that Kate remains in her pants and, although Peter Hanly, who plays Mr Gentleman, and Holly Browne portray this scene with delicate tenderness, Kate’s semi-nudity suggests a degree of self-protection that is inconsistent with her character hitherto and a key opportunity to demonstrate the absolute purity of Kate’s innocence is diminished. Despite this, the play retains and expands upon the novel’s power not because of its physical exposure of the body but because of its poignant exposure of the heart.

Úna Kealy is a lecturer in the Department of Creative and Performing Arts in Waterford Institute of Technology.

  • Review
  • Theatre

The Country Girls by Edna O'Brien

14 Oct - 12 Nov, 2011

Produced by Red Kettle Theatre Company
In Garter Lane Arts Centre

Directed by Mikel Murfi

Composer, Sound Design: Trevor Knight

Costume Design: Léonore McDonagh

Set Design: Ben Hennessy

Lighting Design: Conleth White

With: Caoimhe O’Malley, Holly Browne, Peter Hanly, Charlie Bonner, Simon Boyle, Rachel Dowling, Georgina Miller, Aileen Mythen, Michael Power