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 The Theatreguide.London Review

The Country Girl
Apollo Theatre       Autumn 2010

In Clifford Odets' 1950 backstage drama a young director hires a faded alcoholic actor in the faith that he can draw one great performance out of him, but senses that the actor's wife is an emotional leech who needs her husband to fail so that she can go on playing the role of carer.

The first half of the play is a battle between the two for the actor's soul, until the director discovers that he's had it all wrong, and that the personalities and dynamics of the marriage are entirely different from what he assumed.

Consider that summary for a moment and you'll understand one of the major problems with this otherwise admirable revival.

The play's effect depends on our making the same error as the director, so that the revelations of the second act shock and surprise us as well as him.

But, as directed by Rufus Norris and played by Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove, the truth is so blatantly obvious from the start that the play becomes about how the director character could possibly miss it.

That is an interesting idea for a play, but it's not the one Odets wrote (For one thing, the director is not the main character).

Martin Shaw plays the has-been not only as a complete washout, but as a consistently passive-aggressive manipulator of others' sympathy - always a taker, never a giver.

In one nicely emblematic pattern, as the plot leads him to change clothes frequently, he just drops every discarded item on the floor for his wife to quietly pick up and put on hangers.

Shaw gives a brilliant portrait of an experienced alcoholic, constantly switching masks, whining, wheedling or roaring as needed to get others to work around him.

The only problem is that the character is meant to fool us as well, and he never does.

(Shaw also gets the opportunity to do a lot of Acting. He Acts all over the place, and if you like a lot of Acting for your buck, you'll get it here.)

Jenny Seagrove, in contrast, is hardly present at all in the first act. The actress is there onstage, but she gives us - and her fellow actors- nothing to work with.

She doesn't set her character up as an opponent to the director, and the worst we could think of the woman is that she's a nonentity who lets her husband walk all over her, not that she is holding him down or (as we'll eventually discover) is the only thing holding him up.

Seagrove is a skilled and intelligent actress, and she does come alive in the second half, so this is clearly a matter of an unwise choice by her and director Rufus Norris, not a question of talent.

But it's also worth noting that Odets employs the cliché that a man and woman who fight are actually sexually attracted, and builds to a clinch and implied affair between the director and wife.

But there is absolutely no chemistry between Jenny Seagrove and Mark Letheren, and those moments are completely unbelievable.

Elsewhere Letheren struggles with a character who has been re-imagined as one who can't see what is obvious to everyone else, which turns him from our surrogate and temporary hero to somebody we separate ourselves from throughout.

There are some nice touches to Norris's direction, including the inventive way he has the backstage crew of the play being rehearsed change the sets in the play we're watching while remaining in character, and there are good supporting performances from Peter Harding as a sympathetic stage manager and Luke Shaw as a cheery playwright.

See this production for Martin Shaw's powerful if possibly misguided performance, Jenny Seagrove's strong second-act performance, and the vague outlines you'll sense of what the play was supposed to be about.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  The Country Girl - Apollo Theatre 2010

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