Girl from the North Country (Theatre Royal) – theatre review

It’s astonishing to think that Bob Dylan unwittingly worked on creating the music and lyrics for Girl from the North Country for more than four decades. For most of his career this vibrant and touching musical lay hidden within his many albums. Finally, in 2013, the creative genius of writer/director Conor McPherson imagined the plot, story and characters, which perfectly matched Dylan’s song legacy. The result is a wonderful tale of hope and self-fulfilment from the despair of economic depression.

Photos by Daniel Boud

Girl from the North Country is set in a small lodging house during the winter of 1934 in the US State of Minnesota. The owner Nick is facing bankruptcy as the bank will soon be calling in his loans. His wife Elizabeth is suffering mental health issues, which require constant care and her behaviour with the community and guests is confronting. Adopted daughter Marianne is African American and is expecting a baby soon. Son Gene is hot-tempered and struggles to keep his girlfriend Kate, due to a lack of drive and commitment.

Old Mr Perry, a successful local shopkeeper, suggests marriage to Marianne. This will give her a safe environment with a secure future and provide companionship for his remaining years. Not an easy choice for a young black woman in a white-dominated world. Nick has another issue to contend with: his ongoing affair with a lodger named Mrs Neilsen.

One night, two strangers attend the house looking for accommodation. The first is Marlowe, a fast-talking, quick-witted pastor who uses the fear and reward of God to sell bibles. The other is Joe Scott, former boxer and prison inmate. In different ways, they quickly complicate the lives of everyone else in the house and demonstrate the good and bad forces that are at play during uncertain times. Another character is Dr Walker. He brings some sanity and reason into the picture and facilitates the story as narrator.

McPherson’s characterisations are plausible and relatable. The cast does well in bringing them to life. Standouts are Peter Kowitz as Nick, Lisa McCune as Elizabeth, Peter Carroll as Mr Perry, Grant Piro as Marlowe and Callum Francis as Joe Scott. There are some interesting turns in the story, so be sure to pay attention.

The set makes full use of the great stage that the Theatre Royal has to offer. The chequerboard floor gives depth and clever use of drop-down screens and still photos of 1930 townscapes highlights the paradoxes of the times. Overall direction, costumes, lighting and sound enhance the audience experience. The band is discreetly located on stage and some cast members make use of drums, violin, guitar, double bass, piano and harmonica.

Bob Dylan’s music set in the ’30s works wonderfully. Twenty-two of his songs are included and fit the story – with themes of despair, survival, racism, injustice and hope – perfectly. The arrangements and choreography are less Dylan-folksy, rather gospel and soul inspired.

This is an outstanding production of a great show. Girl from the North Country is playing at Theatre Royal until 27th February, 2022.

Paul Kiely
For more of Paul Kiely’s writings on theatre, check out Absolute Theatre

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