Mark Ludmon reviews Scott Le Crass’s revival of Simon Stephens’s Country Music at Omnibus Theatre in Clapham, London
Simon Stephens is now established as one of Britain’s leading playwrights, from modern classics like Harper Regan and Punk Rock to the phenomenon of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, but his interest in unsentimentally laying bare working-class lives is demonstrated in his 2004 play, Country Music. This has been revived in a new production, intelligently directed by Scott Le Crass, that finds power in restraint in telling the story of one man’s troubled journey through life.
It first introduces us to Jamie as an 18-year-old from Gravesend in Kent in what starts as a touching scene with his girlfriend, Lynsey, as they sit in a car, tentatively testing each other’s feelings. But it quickly emerges that the car is stolen and that Jamie has committed shockingly violent acts that will have repercussions he hasn’t considered. Following Jamie over the next 21 years, Stephens gives us scenes that provide snapshots of his time in prison and beyond, presenting imperfect glimpses of what has happened and what lies behind them. Despite his crimes, we are led to sympathise with his need for redemption and emotional connections but there is a propensity for violence within him that adds an unsettling edge throughout.
This ambivalence is finely balanced in Cary Crankson’s portrayal of Jamie, filled with a huge capacity for love but in a constant battle with his frustration and anger. He is supported by three strong performances including Rebecca Stone as Lynsey, conflicted in her feelings for a young man who she is drawn to but may bring trouble. Newcomer Frances Knight is perfect as Jamie’s daughter, Emma, in a heart-breaking scene that beautifully reveals what both have lost. Dario Coates has a wide-eyed innocence as his brother Matty, highlighting the life and choices that Jamie missed out on and pointing to potential redemption.
Running at just 75 minutes, this excellent revival has a compelling stillness to it, with stretches of silence loaded with unspoken meaning. Complemented by video and lighting design by Benny Goodman, Liam Shea’s set places the action on what resembles a wooden raft, loosely suspended by ropes like a make-shift drawbridge, as precarious as Jamie’s existence. With powerful intimacy and brevity, this production offers tantalising fragments of a life broken but not totally beyond repair.
Running to 23 June 2019