Set during the Great Depression, Girl from the North Country is a brilliantly conceived and executed theatrical production, featuring the music and lyrics of Bob Dylan. Irish writer and director Conor McPherson has taken the singer songwriter’s life’s work and reimagined it as an expansive Eugene O’Neill* type play with music. At its core is the realism of the mid 1930s, harsh and unrelenting. The piece features 22 of Dylan’s numbers (11 in each act), among them my favourites Slow Train, Like a Rolling Stone, Hurricane and Forever Young.
Set in Duluth, Minnesota, in the upper Midwest of the United States, it focuses on the proprietor of a rundown guesthouse. Nick Laine (Peter Kowitz) is in financial strife. His marriage and life are on the precipice. His wife, Elizabeth (Lisa McCune), has mental health issues. The bank is threatening to foreclose on their property. He hopes to benefit from the payday coming to his mistress, the widow Mrs Neilsen (Christina O’Neill).
Elizabeth and Nick’s son, Gene (James Smith), is a wannabe writer, layabout and drunkard. Their 19-year-old pregnant, adopted African American daughter Marianne (Chemon Theys) has not had it easy. Now, Laine is trying to secure her future by marrying her off to an old widower. While the play focuses on them, it also concentrates on some of the guests, including a fallen businessman with an intellectually impaired son, a slippery bible salesman and a recently jailed boxer. The narrator is the Laine family physician, Dr Walker (Terence Crawford).
I loved the way the story unfolded – no pretence, almost matter of fact – and yet with real impact. Likewise, how the musical numbers were interspersed. Even the bigger songs didn’t leave room for applause. That was saved until the end when the standing ovation Girl from the North Country received was most warranted. The minimalist staging – a few sets and props and a slew of exposed instruments such as piano, double bass, guitar, violin and drums – is in keeping with the solemnity of the content. The choreography is slick and seamless. The lighting is often on the dark side of the spectrum, which is again contextually appropriate.
Among the performances, many stood out. Lisa McCune is exemplary in terms of both her acting and singing. She appears to relish the role of the say it like it is, mentally unstable Elizabeth. I assure you she doesn’t hold back. Peter Kowitz’s gravelly voice is perfectly suited to the troubled characterisation of Elizabeth’s husband. Going toe to toe with him, often literally, is James Smith as their 20-something-year-old son. Chemon Theys readily channels indignance as their adopted daughter.
Elijah Williams packs punch as the pugilist Joe Scott, who is looking to move on with his life, after a series of devastating blows. As Nick’s mistress, Christina O’Neill’s vocals are another highlight. Greg Stone lurches from respectable to ferocious and flailing, as he works through the story arc that his character, businessman Mr Burke, travels. Talented songstress, musician and performer Helen Dallimore impresses with her all-around abilities as Mrs Burke.
Blake Erickson has a standout number and adopts the persona of their intellectually challenged son Elias Burke. Grant Piro has sleazy written all over him as the manipulative Reverend Marlowe. Terence Crawford is excellent as the straight-talking narrator, who sets up the contention and appears again in this guise – from time to time – to give us more detail. The strong cast is ably supported by a six-piece band under the musical direction of Andrew Ross.
There is something special about this production. I found it differed in style from most other plays with music or, indeed, live theatre I have seen. While it has humorous moments, it is essentially a tale of toil and struggle, capturing the mood of the times particularly well. Girl from the North Country is a work to be savoured. It is playing at the Comedy Theatre until 4th June, 2022.
*O’Neill was an American playwright and the 1936 Nobel laureate in literature. Dylan himself was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 2016.
Other reviews you might enjoy:
- Girl from the North Country (Theatre Royal) – theatre review
- 33 Variations (Comedy Theatre) – theatre review
- Moulin Rouge! The Musical (Regent Theatre) – theatre review
Alex First is a Melbourne based journalist and communications specialist. He contributes to The Blurb on film and theatre.