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A CurtainUp London Review
Girl From the North Country
The resulting play obviously does not fit the defining identification of musicals where each song advances the plot nor is it really a musical devised around a singer or group's back list. Instead McPherson has written a play full of characters who express themselves with some of Dylan's songs, many of these lesser known. Many of the cast have worked with McPherson before and are from his native Ireland, prestigious actors, most of whom I haven't heard sing before but who have surprisingly good and strong voices. The playwright also directs.
The four central characters live in the boarding house in the eponymous North Country, a town near the Canadian border and on the shores of Lake Superior. They are Nick Laine (Ciaran Hinds) who is fighting mounting debts and the woes of his manic wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson), whose early onset dementia makes her a loose cannon among the visitors to their home. Their son Gene (Sam Reid) would like to be a writer but has yet to find employment in a world dominated by the joblessness of the 1930s, Gene's former girlfriend Katherine (Claudia Jolly) is leaving to work in Boston and is engaged to another. A black child was left behind by her mother in the boarding house and adopted by Elizabeth and Nick. Marianne Laine (Sheila Atim) is now grown up and pregnant but we do not know who the father of her baby is.
Living in the boarding house is Mrs Neilsen (Debbie Kurup) a widow waiting for her husband's railroad shares to be sorted out and who has grown fond of Nick. Mr and Mrs Burke (Bronagh Gallagher and Stanley Townsend) are staying with their disabled son Elias (Jack Shalloo). Mr Burke's business has failed and he is running away, facing insolvency. Two men arrive in the early hours looking for accommodation, the dubious Reverend Marlowe (Michael Shaeffer) and ex-boxer Joe Scott (Arinze Kene). Two local residents are the town doctor, Dr Walker, played by Ron Cook and the aged and widowed, shoe seller Mr Perry (Jim Norton) who is offering to marry Marianne, to provide her and her baby with a home.
There is much to like in this gentle play about the characters hit by the depression. Shirley Henderson as Elizabeth is a slight, short figure but dominates much of the action sitting with her knees apart and interrupting with bizarre, sexual gestures and embarrassing her husband and audience alike. Her casting feels slightly strange because, although she is 51, her diminutive size makes her appear much younger. She gets to sing the show's final number "Forever Young" and she can really belt it out.
Sheila Atim as Marianne sings "Tight Connection to My Heart - Has Anyone Seen My Love?" with its pretty melody. "Slow Train Coming" is performed by the men, a lovely bluesy song and for the first time we see the curious movement of the women as the backing group, with stylised action, some of them playing tambourines. Gene and Katherine sing a duet "I Want You"and one of Dylan's well known songs, "Like a Rolling Stone" rounds off the first act. Many of his songs are lesser known so there has been no inclusion of Bob Dylan's greatest hits to draw in the crowds. Jack Shalloo as Elias is freed from disability to gorgeously sing "Duquesne Whistle" in a show stopping moment, although we may be confused where he is. The onstage band are added to by actor drummers in the cast and I was impressed by the singing quality of the ensemble cast.
Rae Smith's set shows the authentic interior of the boarding house dining room using projected backdrops of Lake Superior or views of a straight road punctuated with telegraph poles. Often, when someone is singing, an accompanying group will be seen at the rear of the stage in silhouette which adds to the sense of being in a small town.
This is a play with songs where you care about these people facing the worst economic factors of the depression. It is almost the antithesis of a glitzy musical and all the stronger for it. Girl From the North Country is a slow burn but engages us in their individual stories. Dylan's evocative songs fit this era well. The theme is one we can relate to with the recent economic downturn in prosperity and the message heartfelt.
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Girl From the North Country
Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan
Written and Directed by Conor McPherson
Starring: Ciaran Hinds, Ron Cook, Sheila Atim, Shirley Henderson, Debbie Kurup, Sam Reid, Stanley Townsend, Jim Norton, Arinze Kene, Claudia Jolly, Jack Shalloo, Michael Shaeffer, Bronagh Gallagher
With: Tom Peters, Karl Queensborough, Kirsty Malpass
Design: Rae Smithson
Sound Design: Simon Baker
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7628
Booking to 7th October 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th July 2017 performance at The Old Vic, The Cut, SE1 8NB (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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