(ear)

 

A girl not a country mile away

Seeing the light: Bernie Dodd (Mark Letheren) finally sees the truth about actor-turned-drunk Frank Elgin but is it too late to save his show from disaster?

The Country Girl

Birmingham Hippodrome

****

WILL dipso Frank Elgin, once the leading actor of his generation, stay off the sauce long enough to keep his part in the play and reach Broadway?

Will his long suffering wife Georgie stay with him or take to the hills, or at least the stalls, with Bernie Dodd, the rising star director who puts his faith in fried Frank?

Will Bernie's faith be rewarded? Will we care?

Well, as far as the last question goes, perhaps not as much as we should have done, at least on paper.

With Bill Kenwright as producer it would have been a surprise, indeed a shock, had the sets been less than excellent and the costumes authentic. His shows are always Premier division stuff and this was a masterclass in how to put on a drama. The Hippodrome is a huge stage to fill for a play but The Country Girl not only managed it but looked as if it had made itself quite at home.

Then you look at the cast and with Martin Shaw as the actor on the rocks, Jenny Seagrove, his partner in crime, or rather court,  from BBC's Judge John Deed as his wife and Mark Letheren from The Bill and Wire in the Blood as Dodd, you would expect some fine performances and you would not be disappointed.

Georgie (Jenny Seagrove) dreams of what might have been

All three could hardly be faulted with Letheren just sneaking the honours in a high class field. Not to be outdone they were ably supported by Nicholas Day as the fictitious play's producer Phil Cook, Peter Harding as stage manager Larry, dragging the play through Boston to New York and Luke Shaw, son of Martin if you were wondering, as the cheery but worried writer Paul Unger played with a nice touch of understatement in contrast to the angst of everyone else around him. He has to please just his aunt, the rest have the world on their shoulders.

It would not be an exaggeration to say Shaw, Seagrove and Letheren gave towering performances. There were a couple of slips, lines clashing for example and at times the actual words vanished into the necessary American accents, but this was first class acting and it passed the Timex test with ease - with time flying by much faster on stage than on the watch.

But somehow it was not quite there. Close but no cigar. You got the feeling this was a collection of individual performances rather than a team effort and if the cast are not quite engaging with each other then it becomes that much more difficult to engage with the audience. Hence while you are intrigued to know how the tale of a washed up actor on his last chance unfolds you find yourself as a watcher, an observer rather than a participant, caring more about the what than the who.

SOMETIMES IT HAPPENS

It is hard to put your finger on the reasons. If I could do that I could make a fortune advising productions in Hollywood, Broadway and the West End. Sometimes it just happens. The rabbit still comes out of the hat but somehow it is not real magic; it is a letter or two short of  of abracadabra..

It may be as stupidly simple as the fact we have seen  John Deed  and  Jo Mills and their on-off, will-he won't-she relationship so often on televsion that we are too much at ease with Martin Shaw and Jenny Seagrove and their tangled love life and this is just another episode. They can't shock or surprise us any more. Who knows?

The play by Clifford Odet first opened on Broadway in 1950 and 60 years on perhaps shows its age in parts, maybe it has values that are no longer important, thoughts of a bygone age but it is still well written with some clever lines so you can hardly blame the script.

All the ingredients are there from wonderful direction by Rufus Norris, superb sets by Scott Pask, period costumes by Jonathan Lipman to clever lighting by Mark Howett and the technically complex sound from Ben Harrison.

The cast and acting was first class so on paper this should have been a no questions asked, runaway success but despite everything in its favour that indefinable something is missing.

Perhaps it is that expectations are so high that any falling short is exaggerated but that being said I did enjoy it. It is always a pleasure to watch an excellent production and fine acting. It might have fallen a tad short of what was hoped for but that does not mean it is not a good production and it is well worth seeing.

Shaw played Dodd in the play more than 30 years ago and is now back playing the washed up, alcoholic actor, who lies and deceives his way through life, always one reach away from a bender. In Shaw's hands you could almost smell the booze on him.

Battling demons Frank Elgin (Martin Shaw) needs wife Georgie to help him through

Seagrove gave us an aloof, tired wife living her life as a minder, constantly waiting for Frank to fall  off the wagon yet again.

 When Elgin finally manages to climb out of the gutter and stand on his own two feet she is given back her freedom and can at last choose to go or stay which is the final question to answer.

Letheren's director Dodd is brash, super confident and jumps to easy conclusions on face value. The growing tension between him and Georgie, a sort of hate hate relationship, can be felt, one of the few real emotions between characters to pass over the footlights.

He fights Georgie for most of the play for control of  Frank until he finally realises Frank doesn't need his control he needs Georgie as a crutch, he needs her consent, her blessing. But by then it is too late to save Dodd who realises he is falling in love with the unfriendly, distant, combative wife.

It is a love triangle surrounding Frank's bottle, both the mental one in his head and the glass one he is always ready to clutch.

There is much to commend the production, the clever way actors take on the role of scene shifters in this play within a play for example to make the transitions interesting and it is never less than a pleasure to watch. It just never quite reaches the heights you expect.

The productions is scheduled for the West End and no doubt after a few weeks evolving on the road that elusive missing spark may well be ignited. After all that is what pre-West End tours are all about. Find the ignition and from A could do better this girl's report will read A* excellent. To 18-09-10

Roger Clarke 

Home Lichfield Garrick  Hippodrome Grand Alex Rep RSC Reviews A-Z Reviews by Theatre