Simon Stephens’ Country Music is not an easy play to watch. But then, that’s the point.
Starting in the 1980s, it spans twenty years in the life of violent offender, Jamie Carris, in a series of scenes with his girlfriend, brother and teenage daughter. Through these encounters we discover who Jamie is, and how his actions have affected the lives of those around him.
While the subject matter might seem downbeat, and may even turn some people off altogether, Country Music is in fact an inventive, powerful, at times genuinely humorous, piece of drama that is hard to fault on any level.
At the heart of the play is an astonishingly authentic performance from Joe Marsh as Jamie in a demanding role that requires the transition from cocky, troubled teenager through incarcerated killer to repentant father trying to connect with his daughter. The cast of three is rounded out by equally powerful performances from Philip Correia as Jamie’s brother and Louise Brealey, who pulls off a potentially tricky dual role as both his girlfriend and teenage daughter. While all three actors bring the realistic, expletive-strewn dialogue to life, it is the lingering pauses, in particular in the prison scene between Jamie and his brother, which really bring the drama home.
The expert writing and acting are complemented by equally strong direction from Lisa Blair and Eleanor While, who manage to draw out the humanity in Jamie, for example allowing him to, literally, strip down in front of the audience between scenes.
The production also benefits hugely from the quality of the set design by Hannah Sibai, which at first glance resembles something from Steptoe and Son, with two large piles of old furniture, car parts and discarded take-away packaging, but is in fact a fitting visual representation of Jamie’s life. Added to this is a crackly television that displays the time changes between scenes and a large faux brick wall that is a continual reminder of incarceration.
Also worth mentioning is the subtle but effective lighting design by David Bennion-Pedley, Oli Soames’ atmospheric sound and, in particular, Colin Hamilton’s pounding mix of music which accompanies the transition between the 1980s, 1990s and 2000s.
At just fifty-five minutes (no interval), Country Music in no way outstays its welcome; providing a short burst of intense drama that allows the audience into Jamie’s world in a way that never lapses into self-pity or lays down any excuses for his behaviour.
Following its short run at the West Yorkshire Playhouse, Country Music is due to tour to prisons across Yorkshire, where it will no doubt resonate on a whole different level. But as a purely human drama, this Playhouse production is a thought provoking and well-staged success that deserves to be seen by a wide audience.