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Country Girl Memories

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All sorts of memories are set loose by the revival of Clifford Odets' The Country Girl at the Apollo last night. It was on this same stage, in 1983, that Martin Shaw played the ambitious director, goading his fallen idol, the great actor Frank Elgin, back into the limelight for one last hurrah.

Shaw stole the show, rather, from both John Stride as Frank and Hannah Gordon as Georgie, his country girl wife. The director's still a much better part for him. You need a touch of the John Barrymore as Frank, and Shaw, though a fine actor, is no more suited to the role than was the over-polished Stride.

Or indeed, the late Corin Redgrave, who followed in his father's footsteps at Greenwich in 1995 (opposite his own wife, Kika Markham, as Georgie). Redgrave played the panic and the fear alright, but it's an inescapable fact about Frank that he must carry an air of ruined greatness about him from the start.

And ruined greatness was a speciality of Michael Redgrave, who introduced the play to London in 1952 with Sam Wanamaker as the director and Googie Withers as Georgie.

Redgrave played the mercurial bibber, said Kenneth Tynan, like a recently defeated heavy-weight, "fighting, lunging, swinging, and counter-punching; but with a revived authority and victory in his eye, for the uncertainties that are Frank Elgin's enemies are Mr Redgrave's, too."

On that occasion, the play was unnecessarily re-titled Winter Journey in order to avoid any risk of confusion with Wycherley's The Country Wife, but was chiefly notable for this remarkable resuscitation of Redgrave's then stuttering career.

The greatness and the poignancy implict in Tynan's account suggests that you need an actor like the late Robert Stephens, perhaps, to play Frank (not that there are many actors much like Robert Stephens, apart from Redgrave senior himself; both specialised in weak-willed, flawed but larger-than-life characters like Frank).

Indeed, when Stephens lay dying in his hospital bed in 1995, he asked me one afternoon, when I paid him a visit, where I was off to that evening. I told him I was going to Greenwich, to see The Country Girl. "Fucking awful play," he spluttered,"who's playing the actor?" Corin Redgrave, I replied. "Jesus Christ, he'll never be able to do it!"

He was right, though Redgrave junior, like Shaw, had a fairly good stab. Robert, of course, had already played the role, metaphorically, in making his own magnificent comeback at Stratford-upon-Avon when RSC boss Adrian Noble had cast him as Falstaff when he was right down in the dumps. He later played an exceptionally moving King Lear, too.

When Mark Letheren as the director last night spoke of the hair rising on the back of his neck when he saw Frank in his pomp, it was impossible, for me at least, not to think of Adrian Noble once telling me how he'd been affected for life by Robert's performance as Atahuallpa, the glistening Inca chieftan in Peter Shaffer's The Royal Hunt of the Sun.

Noble had seen the play at its premiere in Chichester, where he was a schoolboy. And the son of an undertaker. Thereafter, he always came to praise Robert, not to bury him. He knew his Elgin marbles.

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