Thirty years after Martin Shaw played a demanding young theatre director in The Country Girl at the Apollo, he returns to the same stage in the same play (and with the same producer, Bill Kenwright) as the washed-up, alcoholic old actor Frank Elgin in Clifford Odets’ not too sentimental 1950 backstage drama.
The play takes time to get going in Rufus Norris’ production, handsomely designed with standing flats, pipes and pulleys by Scott Pask, mainly because it’s slightly miscast.
The characters never seem like they sound, and vice versa. Shaw is rough as sandpaper as the old trouper, and he does the dishevelled collapse in the dressing room very well; but he’s never magnificent or really leonine, not even in flashes, just angry.
And Jenny Seagrove - while suitably clenched and worn-out as his loyal wife Georgie, the country girl - never encompasses that dimension of mystery, and magic, that she spots in a dark theatre and even in her muted dalliance with the director Bernie Dodd (an over irascible, curiously unconvincing Mark Letheren), who adored Frank in his pomp and wants to give him one last chance.
But after the tribulations of the try-out in Boston, the last scenes at the New York first night gather in emotional complexity, and we no longer have to ask, Odets, where is thy sting? This is a wonderful play, about acting and the theatre, deception and love, and it deserves to hit home harder and to be “voiced” more gorgeously.
There’s a too-squeaky young actress from Thomasin Rand, a nicely judged pudgy playwright from Luke Shaw, and a slyly wise and brisk old stage manager (“Tonight, we are not at home to Mr Sloppy”) from Peter Harding.
In that non-sloppy spirit, Norris seems most at home in arranging some very slick scene changes, with smart and evocative elisions, even though one cupboard dithers a little, and an onstage radio refuses to be turned on and then, more bizarrely, turned off, when it wasn’t even on.