REVIEW: The Country Girls, Minerva Theatre, Chichester, until July 8.

Grace Molony and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman. Photo by Manuel Harlan
Grace Molony and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman. Photo by Manuel Harlan
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A deeply-impressive, beautifully-played professional theatre debut from Grace Molony – who left drama school early to take the role – is the beating heart of this new stage adaptation of Edna O’Brien’s landmark 1960 novel.

The book was banned on publication. Inevitably in the nearly-six decades since, it’s a tale which has lost its ability to shock. Instead, its value now – just as great in a different way – lies in its entrancing depiction of the dreams and hopes of two young girls – of varying degrees of rebelliousness – in 1950s rural Ireland.

Feeling held back by their convent education and eventually expelled, best friends Kate and Baba sense there is a whole world out there just waiting to be discovered… somewhere… possibly Dublin.

And here Molony as Kate, the more bookish, more diffident of the two, captures superbly the naivety and the eagerness of youth, all wrapped up in a fragility and vulnerability increasingly challenged by a burgeoning confidence and a rising sense of her own identity.

Molony gives a refreshingly natural performance in a piece directed by Lisa Blair with complete understanding that the best drama is the drama that draws us in.

Just possibly it’s a little slow to get into its stride, but Blair, O’Brien and the cast offers characters we can warm to, indeed feel for. Genevieve Hulme-Beaman’s Baba, the more natural leader, risk-taker and egger-on, offers the perfect foil for Kate – another fine performance exceptionally well delivered.

Around them, a strong ensemble offers the people that populate their world, from the drunken, violent but possibly-redeemable dad to disapproving nuns, from dodgy womanisers to the married man who can’t make up his mind.

On Richard Kent’s excellent set, a rich tapestry is woven, and in the superior second half, the moral and emotional complexities are teased out skilfully and hauntingly. Molony and Hulme-Beaman work remarkably well together; while offering a tale complete in itself, their legacy is that you leave the theatre intrigued as to what the next chapter might be.

In an up-down season for the CFT, once again, the more enduring, more substantial pleasures are in the Minerva this year.

Phil Hewitt

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