I’d heard great things about Girl from the North Country, and it got a slew of five star reviews when it first hit the West End back in 2017. It’s been touring the UK and Ireland since last summer, so I thought it would be a good plan to check it out and see what all the fuss is about. I’m not a massive Bob Dylan fan, but I know what I like and I like what I know (most of the time). Not a ringing endorsement but I was looking forward to hearing a few familiar tunes. As it turned out, of the twenty songs listed in the programme, I only knew three – I Want You, Like a Rolling Stone, and Hurricane. However, you know that old saying, if you’re going to do a cover version, make it totally different from the original so that there’s a point of doing it. As far as I can make out, all the songs in this show are very different in sound and style from Dylan’s originals. So that’s a plus in my book.
The place: Duluth, Minnesota; the time: 1934. Nick Laine is the proprietor of an old guesthouse, but it’s not making money and the banks are getting restless. His wife, Elizabeth, suffers from dementia; their son Gene is alcoholic; and their nineteen-year-old daughter Marianne is five months pregnant with no sign of the father. Nick’s having an affair with one of the guesthouse residents, Mrs Neilsen; also living there are the once wealthy Burke family, now down-at-heels due to their failed business, and their son has learning disabilities. Marianne is being romantically pursued by Mr Perry, a good fifty years her senior; there’d be no real relationship if they got married but it would make her “respectable”. One night, sheltering from a storm, arrive the Reverend Marlowe, who makes his money out of selling bibles, and Joe Scott, an ex-boxer with nowhere to go.
Sounds like a cross between a soap opera and the set-up of an Agatha Christie murder mystery! And that’s one of the stranger things about this production; much of it reminded me of something else. It seemed to me to struggle to find its own identity. In an attempt to forge links between Bob Dylan’s back catalogue and to create a credible dramatic storyline to deal with these various characters, it kind of falls between two stools. The music imposes itself on the action rather than growing organically from the plot; in this regard it reminded me of the recent hit Standing at the Sky’s Edge, but the relationship between the music and the story was much more balanced in that show. The structure of the play element starts with a side character, Dr Walker, introducing us to the people and their environment, and ends with him winding up events, telling us when and how they died, and how their fortunes fared. In that regard, it reminded me of the lawyer Alfieri in Arthur Miller’s A View from the Bridge, who bookends proceedings with an introduction and a wrap-up.
I thought it was also revealing that the list of Dylan songs in the programme (always helpful to see in a musical) also tells us the year each song came out, and which album they’re on, presumably so that people can then follow up on the original recordings should they wish at their own leisure. Bizarrely, what the programme doesn’t tell us, is which characters/performers sing which songs. This sends a signal that the presence of the songs and their heritage is more important than the actual show. It’s almost as though it’s subtly disrespecting itself.
The overall result is a very melancholic show; there’s very little light and shade with the portrayal of the characters, all of whom are having various degrees of a rotten time, and none of whom get what they want from life. I’m not saying I want a happy ending – that wouldn’t be realistic; but perhaps neither is it realistic that not one of the characters has anything positive or pleasing happen to them.
However, where the show does succeed is with the musical performances – and, indeed, the performances in general. There are some tremendously beautiful arrangements in that score, courtesy of great work by Musical Supervisor Simon Hale. The music is all played live on stage, in part by the cast as a whole, but mainly by four musicians who are mostly restricted to one corner of the stage, out of sight, out of mind. Musically, it is a superbly talented cast who harmonise fantastically and come out with some amazing solo singing. Standout performances for me were from Justina Kehinde as the robustly individual Marianne, Joshua C Jackson as the majestically voiced Joe Scott, and Frances McNamee as the dementia-suffering Elizabeth, finely revealing how someone with dementia may be incapable of controlling their own behaviour but they were a strong and powerful person in their past. At our performance, the part of Mrs Neilsen was played by understudy Nichola MacEvilly and her singing voice is sensational.
Other highlights include the wonderful staging of the song Duquesne Whistle, with Ross Carswell’s Elias dressed in other-worldly white, and Gregor Milne’s plaintive performance of I Want You as Gene loses his childhood sweetheart to another, less hopeless, man. And it’s always a delight to see one of my favourite actors, Teddy Kempner, as the awful Mr Perry, constantly proffering a measly bouquet that gets more manky day by day. Among the ensemble, Daniel Reid-Walters stood out as being a powerhouse of dance and enthusiasm.
There’s no question that this is a generally enjoyable show, whose musical element satisfies, soothes and intrigues. It doesn’t leap out at you as being a show to love; instead, it’s a very reserved experience, not wishing to draw attention to itself. Quality, yes; but for me there is something lacking. The tour continues to Bristol, Birmingham, Belfast, Aberdeen, Norwich, Leicester and Wimbledon.
P. S. I haven’t a clue why the show is called Girl from the North Country. Yes, there is a song of that name, that features briefly in the show; but I don’t get its overall significance. Mind you, the story itself is somewhat nebulous so no other title leaps out of your imagination; so it might as well be called Girl from the North Country as anything else.
Production photos by Johan Persson