The Country by Martin Crimp at The Lauriston Studio

Aah…..the pastoral, it conjures up peaceful scenes of harmony, nature all green and pleasant while you daydream away your life in a meadow. Is this image real? Not if you are Martin Crimp, the play-write from Kent who specialises in plays of social decay and moral compromise. And judging by this production by The Lauriston Studio at the Altrincham Garrick Playhouse this is indeed the case: the country isn’t a panacea for the faults of character. This is to the play’s credit I think.

A young couple with their children move to the country. Richard, a doctor, has taken in an unconscious girl from the roadside, we join the action in the night after Richard has deposited the ‘comatose’ woman into the spare bed. His wife, Corinne, is not pleased, and so begins a devilish game of verbal ‘paper, scissors, stone’ where not one of the three characters wins. Richard, played by John McElhatton, seems to have a murky past, his wife, Corinne, while forgiving, is still suspicious about him and his motives, and is extremely concerned as to why, even as a doctor, he has taken in this girl. Immediately we get a hint of the whole picture: an unfaithful past to do with sex and drugs, yet without knowing concretely. Are they escaping from something? When Rebecca, the unconscious girl, is introduced into the story this question becomes three-fold: is he escaping her, is she following him – or is he following her?

The way of the play is claustrophobic, always only two protagonists on stage at any one time: What is going on? On the one hand it seems obvious what is happening: we have ‘city folk’ moving to the country, maybe thinking that it will improve their lives – but what is left unsaid is the exact relationship Richard has with Rebecca, this is slowly teased out but always obliquely. Theatre goers are sophisticated folks after all. What becomes clear is that a change of scenery doesn’t mean a change of character – one cannot escape one’s character by running away, it follows you everywhere. People’s wish of ‘freedom’ has this effect of make believe about it.

The director, Mark Butt, tells us in the program notes that we won’t get any easy answers from this play, and he is right in one sense, but that doesn’t mean that understanding is impossible: yes there are loose ends plot wise and in the character’s destinies, but the play is not about tying up loose ends, I believe, rather it is about a feeling, an aesthetic, almost. We get this feeling with the set: it is the interior of a converted grain barn – it doesn’t look like the country, not like the clich├ęd image of living in a cottage. With grey colours and a simple table, chair and old-fashioned phone combo, it conjures up alienation and reinforces the feeling that while this couple are now in the country they haven’t escaped their troubles.

The performances are all solid, especially Ali Davenport’s Corinne who we first see cutting out a picture from a magazine, the game of ‘paper, rock, scissors’ between the characters has begun. Ms. Davenport gives the most intense performance, switching between the concerned wife and mother one moment to the distrustful, suspicious (or is that solicitous?) questioner the next. John McElhatton’s Richard was suitably guilty and harassed, annoyed at the bothering’s of his medical partner, Bruce? Boris?, and resentful of his wife’s attentions, while Rebecca, played by Sarah Roberts produced a performance that reminded me of a Mamet character, quick fire questions, repetition of statements: in fact this can be said for all of the characters.

I enjoyed this production and it is perfectly suited to the small, intimate surroundings of The Lauriston Studio.

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