The Country Girl is a serious piece of theatre — serious script, serious characters, serious themes and, here, a serious cast.
At its simplest, it is story of washed-up actor Frank Elgin and his struggle to beat the booze, remember his lines and rediscover the dramatic genius that once wowed audiences.
He has been pickled for a decade and now has just over three weeks to get himself together. Will he find the something within that makes him a “bigger actor”?
The plot is driven by the bitter love/hate triangle comprising Frank, his wife Georgie and theatre director Bernie Dodd. Long-suffering Georgie —the country girl of the title — tries desperately to protect her husband from himself, and from Dodd, but the director, who has given Frank a final chance of redemption, has very different ideas. He and Georgie are on a collision course.
Clifford Odets, the son of Romanian and Russian-Jewish immigrants to the United States, wrote The Country Girl in 1950 and it quickly became regarded as one of the most authentic American backstage dramas. Grace Kelly played opposite Bing Crosby in the 1954 film version and won an Oscar for her performance.
So the play comes loaded with history. And this production boasts an enviable cast. Martin Shaw played the young director Dodd almost 30 years ago — now he is cast as the ageing actor.
Jenny Seagrove, who played Shaw’s love interest in the television drama series, Judge John Deed, is Georgie, while Dodd is played by another John Deed veteran, Mark Letheren.
It is a tense, melancholy piece with finely crafted, cleverly nuanced dialogue. This production, directed by Rufus Norris, has a fine, evocative stage design and powerful performances all round. Everything is going for it. And yet, it does not engage.
Maybe there is just too much of the melancholy to it.
It is not an easy ride for the audience, and aside from the odd ripple of muted laughter, there was little respite from the misery.
And it does not help that the American accents, which are a dramatic necessity, are also a hindrance when it comes to catching every word. Shaw gives a fine performance, much of it in his vest as he paces around his dressing room, but his deliberately gruff delivery is a challenge.
We are watching a theatre within a theatre, with actors playing actors, reviewers writing reviews.
So I hesitate to offer the following, somewhat odd confession, but I actually savoured the play more as I looked back on it than I did watching it.
You could say it was intense and thought provoking. You could also say it was a little slow. (www.leedsgrandtheatre.com)