Earlier this year, playwright Simon Stephens had two successive productions at the Bush Theatre. Itís a venue that, like the Royal Court Upstairs, suits his spare, elliptical style of writing. Stephens doesnít do dense or abstract. His characters are ordinary people in ordinary words, with ordinary lives. Itís the very everyday-ness that means you have to work at filling in the gaps. Real life doesnít come all neat.
Country Music begins in a parked car; 18-year-old Jamie has stolen it after attacking his motherís lover, and is on the run with his girlfriend aged 15. Then, eleven years later, Jamie is in prison (for a later murder), being visited by his younger brother Matty. Ten years later still, we see a stilted reunion with his daughter, and finally a flashback to before all this began.
We first see Jamie as a young Essex thug, illiterate and inarticulate, using violence to make his points. The obvious conclusion is that he has no-one to blame but himself for getting banged up for murder for 20-odd years. But Stephensí skill is not to lecture us about understanding or pitying Jamie, but rather simply to sow seeds that make us gradually realise there may be more to him than yobbishness.
There are references to sexual abuse that drove Jamie to attempt suicide before the action onstage begins. We also infer that he painstakingly learns to read and write while in prison; heís horrified when his brother speaks of dropping out of college in favour of a ready-money handyman job. Itís all done with hints, letting us come to our own conclusions rather than being preached at sanctimoniously.
Lee Ross gives a remarkable central performance as Jamie, slowly realising just how badly he has ruined his life and coming to terms with being left behind by those he had held dear. Gordon Andersonís style of direction suits Stephensí writing: he finds the drama in natural behaviour, without asking his actors to overplay stuff. No great tensions or intricate plot, but this is a first-rate production.
Written for Teletext.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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