Pattie Maguire and John Cronin in Country Music by Simon Stephens. Image by Wen Driftwood
It might run for only seventy minutes, but Country Music by Simon Stephens serves up a four act masterclass. Charting a painfully familiar tale, Stephens’s little ditty about Jamie and Lyndsey speaks to hard times and hard people trying to survive. Of scared and scarred young boys hiding behind violence. Of young girls trying to negotiate their rage. Of the love, pain and hope that underscores the humanity and inhumanity of their world. First produced in 2004, Country Music comes with so much legacy you’d want to be insane, or rather brilliant, to think you could stage and do it justice. Which is exactly what Glass Mask Theatre have managed to do, delivering seventy minutes of theatrical dynamite.
Not that it will conform to everyone’s idea of how you should tell a story from a disadvantaged socio-economic background. Its emphasis on personal choice rather than environment and conditions, on learning to submit to the rules and play the game rather than questioning the rules and game itself will have some tut tutting. But there’s more than enough context here, and relocating the setting to Ireland raises its own questions about the primary importance of environment. But that’s a different play. Those with experience in the field know there’s the issues, and then there’s the people effected by those issues. In Country Music Stephens's focus is on people.
John Cronin and Callan Cummins in Country Music by Simon Stephens. Image by Wen Driftwood
Given the play’s heightened intimacy Glass Mask Theatre makes an ideal venue by bringing you up close and personal, giving its cast nowhere to hide. Under Ross Gaynor’s assured direction they don’t need to. Gaynor, still a young director, successfully navigates to the heart of Country Music by eliciting four outstanding performances. Even so, not all Gaynor’s choices will conform with everyone’s preference. If pre-show music hits up Country and Western classics with their bittersweet tragedies and bad choices, use of an oppressive instrumental score throughout creates mood rather the capturing the humanity at the heart of Stephens's script. Similarly with the positioning of Jamie, a brilliant John Cronin, charting the journey of a rebel without a clue to regretful father rueing the choices he's made. Positioning Jamie as less of a bad boy so much as a good boy with a bad attitude in a bad situation trades his danger for damage. Losing his sense of threat leans into heightening his personal loss and his possibility for redemption. Cronin navigating the characters intricacies with stunning ease as Jamie moves from car to prison visiting room, to dingy apartment, all the time growing a little older and wiser. Cronin making light of the acid test that is the glorious cigarette smoked in silence scene.
Not that’s he’s alone smoking in a stolen car. The spirited Lyndsey, absconding from her care home, serves as aspiration, inspiration and counterpoint to Jamie’s pain fuelled recklessness. A light in the dark that the dark can never have, Lyndsey is beginning to realise love isn’t all you need. Or that maybe there are other kinds of love, like those of a parent for a child. Ciara Ivie breathtaking and brilliant as the lonely Lyndsey, revealing her heart, soul, pride, resilience and secret self through a myriad of gestures, expressions, tones, smiles, grins, subtle shifts in body and positioning. Ivie's chemistry with Cronin performative gold. Similarly Callan Cummins as the hyper energised Mattie, Jamie’s younger brother who visits him in prison, their chemistry palpable. Likewise Pattie Maguire as Belfast Child Emma, Jamie’s daughter he never got to know. Maguire extraordinarily moving channelling Lyndsey’s spirit and Jamie’s nail-biting. Heartbreaking during an attempt at reconciliation when maybe it's too late for shared everydays like making tea. Proving murder is just the first tragedy of the many smaller tragedies it leads to.
John Cronin and Ciara Ivie in Country Music by Simon Stephens. Image by Wen Driftwood
Stephens has talked about writing plays not as scripting language but as mapping energies. He sells himself short. Stephens does both, being an excellent cartographer and a world class master of language and craft. Like a pocket watch, countless pieces need to tick and click at the same time, unseen behind a face that keeps perfect time. Take the notion of being caged or trapped, reinforced by scenes being played in a car, a prison visiting room, a dingy apartment. Offset by the final bittersweet scene, hinting at freedom, being played outdoors. Balanced by the right amount of words in exactly the right place. That doesn’t happen by accident. That’s craftsmanship of the highest order, and just one of Country Music's many ticking parts. You can argue about its brevity, but Country Music has all the hallmarks of a modern classic. Done terrific service here by Glass Mask Theatre. Not to be missed.
Country Music by Simon Stephens runs at Glass Mask Theatre until March 2.
For more information visit Glass Mask Theatre