This week’s theatre: Country Girls hit the Abbey while Alice returns to Wonderland

Abbey Theatre stages O’Brien’s subversive classic as a much safer journey and Blue Raincoat re-re-imagines adventures in Wonderland.

The Country Girls

Abbey Theatre, Dublin. Ends Apr 6th, 7.30pm (Sat mat 2pm) €13-€45 abbeytheatre.ie

A remarkable story of shedding innocence and thorny desires in 1950s Ireland, Edna O'Brien's debut novel enjoyed the holy trinity of receptions when it first emerged in 1960: banned, burned and secretly devoured. In a widely revised version of O'Brien's 2011 own stage adaptation, here staged as a fluid dream of motion and music, the Abbey's new production imagines those good-old, bad-old days as a kind of monochrome pastoralism, where occasional signs of free spirit burn with colour.

The west-county ingénue, Kate, is marked out in gradually amassing reds – a beret, a pair of Dorothy-like heels, a travelling suitcase – and her own contraband, in a Dublin convent school, is a livid green copy of Joyce’s Dubliners. If that mirrors the author’s status, an already garlanded O’Brien (the novel is this year’s One City One Book choice) is involved directly through occasional voice-overs, an earnest tribute but one that unbalances the telling. The bigger problem with Graham McLaren’s staging is uneven casting and the compensation of a ceaseless score giving everything the woozier sentimentality of a musical. But the tale has been declawed too, sparing its heroine from harsher exploitations. Maybe that’s a sign of the times, but a once-subversive narrative now seems safe enough to put on any syllabus.

Alice in Wonderland

Project Arts Centre, Dublin. Ends Mar 16 7.30pm €16-€20 projectartscentre.ie

Jocelyn Clarke's 1999 adaptation of Lewis Carroll's classic plunged Alice into an unsettling version of Wonderland – fleetly summoned by Blue Raincoat's physically adept ensemble – while giving her a surprising accomplice: Carroll himself, or Charles Dodgson to use his real name. For this revival, though, director Niall Henry pairs Alice with an older version of herself instead, raising all kinds of conceptual ideas – from the self-reference of Blue Raincoat's return journey to what seems like the older Alice's corroded self-regard – but leaving us with two fairly indistinguishable Alices. As an agitated White Rabbit and a serene Chesire Cat, John Carty is more grounded, with Sandra O'Malley giving the Duchess and the Caterpillar a funereal solemnity. This is a story explicitly concerned with growth, though – whether by enchanted cakes, mushrooms or, more troublingly, time. It's hard to say what Blue Raincoat discover by returning to Wonderland – this show was revived two years ago and now tours to Dublin – unless it's the realisation you never really leave.

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