Edna O’Brien’s The Country Girls lives in the public imagination foremost as one of those banned and burned books, testament to post-independence Ireland’s absurd prudishness, hypocrisy and philistinism.
This is unfair. It’s a fine book about adolescence, worthy of consideration alongside The Catcher in the Rye, The Bell Jar, and A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.
Joyce’s autobiographical novel casts a particularly long shadow over O’Brien’s work, but not in a way that diminishes it. O’Brien captures a time and a place superbly and, in Cait, she creates a mixture of fading innocence, intelligence and wry observational skills.
This last quality is what makes the book a pleasure to read, as we witness Cait’s evolving worldview. It’s also the most difficult to transmit to stage, and so it proves with the Abbey’s revival of O’Brien’s own adaptation.
The overriding sense is of skimming at the surface, of failing to get to the heart of the book.
That surface is vibrant at least — full of movement, dance and song under Graham McClaren’s direction and Vicki Manderson’s choreography. Francis O’Connor’s set is literally a blank page, curling at the edge upstage, with elements of scenery raised and lowered as needed to furnish bedsit, convent or homestead.
Newcomer Grace Collender plays Kate with a chirpiness that works initially, but proves too one-dimensional. Her scenes with Mr Gentlemen (Steven McCarthy), her would-be older, married, beau, lack the sexual charge found in the original material. Lola Petticrew, on the other hand, plays brattish best friend Baba with relish.
Overall, a sense of safe and misplaced sentimentality pervades the production. The darker implications of O’Brien’s clear-eyed depiction of nascent womanhood, its serious burdens and vulnerabilities, is curiously downplayed.
For that, fans will have to return to the book.
- Until April 6. Touring: Cork Opera House, April 16-20; Town Hall Theatre, Galway, April 23-27; Lime Tree Theatre, Limerick, April 30-May 4