It has been 57 years since Edna O’Brien wrote her debut novel, The Country Girls, and it so shocked 1960s Ireland that it was promptly banned.
Despite the Irish censor, her parents being shamed and their parish priest publicly burned copies of the novel, it went on to win the prestigious Kingsley Amis Award.
And, thank god, it didn’t put her off writing. She has now adapted her own work for a new stage play, also called The Country Girls, which premiered tonight at Chichester Festival Theatre on its Minerva stage.
The Country Girls, a story of lost innocence that is set in repressed 1950s Ireland, still has the power to shock and has scenes which are deeply disturbing.
It makes your flesh creep to see the two young girls pawed, lusted after and seduced by men old enough to be their grandfathers.
The spectre of paedophilia is never far away especially when we watch the naive, 14-year-old protagonist, Kate, groomed and bewitched by a 42-year old man, even one as handsome as French actor Valéry Schatz.
But O’Brien and director Lisa Blair have done as great job in creating a taut and fascinating drama that showcases three fine performances.
Both ‘country girls’ Grace Molony as Kate and Genevieve Hulme-Beaman as her flighty best friend Baba are worth the price of a ticket alone.
Colm Gormley, as Kate’s estranged, drunken and abusive father, Malachi, is simply outstanding. He rampages onto the stage full of fury, staff in his hand like a club, ready to take on anyone who gets in his way.
The menace this broken down and bullying horse-breeder exudes is terrifying.
Malachi grabs his errant daughter by the neck and throttles her on more than one occasion. No wonder she was keen to escape his violence. His fight with Baba’s father, Hugo, is frightenly realistic.
Gormley’s multi-layered performance even wins our sympathy – if only for a second – when he begs contrition and forgiveness from her. It is a masterclass in acting.
What is frustrating about The Country Girls is that so much of the story has been jettisoned to keep the play a pacy, two-act, 120 minutes.
The plot is episodic, like chapters in a novel, and the editing of some scenes makes the story disjointed.
We meet characters like farm hand Hickey in the first few minutes and then he’s gone. Baba’s parents, Hugo and Martha, appear and promptly disappear.
And postulant nun, Sister Mary. There are suggestions that she and her star pupil at the convent school, Kate, shared more than just a prayer – but the idea is left hanging in the air to pursue the central theme of Baba and Kate’s awakening and independence in decadent and debauched Dublin.
Despite the hints, and unholy thoughts left to the audience’s imaginations, there is nothing that will frighten the vicar, or indeed, parish priest, in this production, although a few eyebrows may be raised.
I was baffled by the incongruous cameo appearance of Keshini Misha, dressed in a sari, singing Spanish Lady. The character seems completely out of context unless I’m missing something.
Hulme-Beaman’s wonderfully wayward Baba is animated, shameless and headstrong. She’s every mother’s nightmare, a lusty teenager who runs wild the moment she escapes the confines of her strict family home.
Schatz, as Mr Gentleman, is a sleezeball, taking the wide-eyed, infatuated Kate out for secretive dates when she’s just 14 and doggedly pursuing her throughout the play.
The Country Girls skilfully captures a moment in recent Irish history which saw rebellion from thousands of young people who had lived for years under an oppressive regime dominated by the church and family.
Let’s hope O’Brien’s family aren’t persecuted for this latest chapter to The Country Girls saga.
The Country Girls runs in the Minerva Theatre until July 8.
Edna O’Brien revisits her debut novel to create a beautifully acted play that is every bit as shocking and disturbing as the original story.