The Country Girls, by Edna O’Brien
Minerva Theatre, Chichester
The first novel of Edna O’Brien, ‘The Country Girls’, was banned in her native Ireland and criticized by the church when it was published in 1960. This seminal coming-of-age story mirrors her own experiences of growing up in a highly conservative Roman Catholic country where women struggled to make their feelings and voices heard. Her domineering mother despised literature and even tried to burn the books Edna was reading.
In 1954 O’Brien married an Irish writer, who was disliked by her parents, and they moved to London. Her groundbreaking book was published in her 30th year, and it changed the tone of Irish writing. She later adapted it for the stage, and has since won international acclaim.
The heroines are charming Kate (Grace Molony) and her bubbly best friend Baba, short for Bridget (Genevieve Hulme-Beaman). We meet the girls in drab convent school uniforms, white socks and sandals. They feel troubled and trapped in their west of Ireland convent, although they are befriended by one of the nuns, Sister Mary.
This matches Edna O’Brien’s own experience in county Clare where she grew up. As a girl before the War and as a young adult, she lived in a deeply deprived country where women were particularly oppressed. In 1951 Noel Browne, the Health Minister, tried to introduce the free Mother and Child Scheme to protect young women. This was opposed by the church and the medcial profession, and the Minister had to resign. Books were banned, films were censored, and there was no TV, or mains water for many people, until the Sixties.
Against this real life claustrophobic background, we find the two teenage girls in the story trying to find their way. Baba is constantly breaking the rules in search of fun and leads Kate astray. Out of school, they meet a couple of spiv businessmen. Kate rejects their advances as she is being courted by an older married man, known simply as Mr Gentleman (Valery Schatz). Baba is expelled from the convent after going off with her beau, and the two girls are separated for a while.
Kate is flattered by the attentions of the older man and shows a growing affection for him, although he is married. However, the two girls are reunited and Baba persuades Kate, with some difficulty, to leave Mr Gentleman and go with her to London. Kate battles with the demands of her drunken widowed father. In leaving home she overcomes her innate sense of duty, but only with the help her wayward friend Baba. For them, that marks the start of a brave new world as they move from childhood to womanhood, suitcases in hand.
The theatrical version of Edna O’Brien’s tale works well. The innocent rebelliousness of the girls within the confines of their strict social straightjacket rings true. The setting by Richard Kent of bleak stone buildings against a green floor provide the stern background for life in Ireland in the first half and London in the second act. ‘The Country Girls’ is at the Minerva until July 8 and you can enjoy a play with good writing, deft direction, and two fine young lead actors.