My first venture into Conor McPherson’s GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY was at the Olivier Award back in 2018. I’d heard a lot about the production, but hadn’t seen it. As that was the show’s award winning year there was a performance from Sheila Atim, and I can honestly say that I’ve never seen anything so mesmerising (HERE).
I was determined to see the show, but as it was the end of its London run, I was too late. Now however, the touring production has landed at the Wales Millennium Centre and I was front and centre for the opening night.
Girl from the North Country is dark and intense and features 21 songs of the great Bob Dylan. As you would expect from Dylan, they are lyrically superb, but the way Conor has woven them into the story is a touch of theatrical genius.
First of all, here’s what the opening night audience thought of the production……
The story happens in 1934 in the heartland of America at a boarding house in Bob Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. It’s there we meet a group of wayward souls who cross paths in this time-weathered guesthouse. Standing at a turning point in their lives, they realise nothing is what it seems. But as they search for a future, and hide from the past, they find themselves facing unspoken truths about the present.
Nick (COLIN CONNOR), is the boarding house owner who finds himself on the doorstep of bankruptcy. His wife, Elizabeth, played superbly by FRANCES MCNAMEE, who incidentally was also first class in Sting’s The Last Ship, struggles with reality as she slips deeper into dementia, floating in and out of moments of clarity. Her on stage presence is mesmerising, you can’t take you eyes off her, and her voice is incredible. He is having an affair, in plain sight of his wife, with the widow Mrs Nielsen (MARIA OMAKINWA), one of the renters, but is she what he really wants?
Nick and Elizabeth’s children also have their own problems. Gene (GREGOR MILNE), is a hard drinking, going nowhere in his life guy who fancies himself as a writer, and 5 month pregnant unmarried daughter Marianne (JUSTINA KEHINDE) who is trying to avoid being married off to the much olderMr Perry (TEDDY KEMPNER).
Being a guest house means there are visitors who drop in and make up the rest of the cast. We meet a slightly menacing minister, the not so good Reverend Marlow (ELI JAMES). A couple almost broken beyond repair, Mr and Mrs Burke (JAMES STADDON and REBECCA THORNHILL), along with their problematic son Elias (ROSS CARSWELL). There’s also a young boxer on the run (JOSHUA C JACKSON) and the local Dr Walker (CHRIS MCHALLEM) who also serves as the narrator.
Joshua is another performer with an outstanding voice and delivers a fantastic performance as the repentant boxer. Although to be fair, there isn’t a bad voice among the cast, and when they come together, as they often do, the sound is heavenly.
As these guests and locals come and go, in and out of the house, their own secrets are revealed and we are delivered everything from blackmail to heroin addiction.
So anyone who tells you this is a typical jukebox musical, are clearly wrong. We do however get some of Bob Dylan’s finest and most powerful songs, each of which have their place in this rich, slick production.
We get the most incredible soundtrack, which should delight Dylan aficionado’s and non-believers alike. From the 60s favourites such as ‘Like a Rolling Stone‘ and an instrumental version of ‘Lay Lady Lay‘ to some not so well know songs from the 80s.
Musically, the show is magnificent, with some gorgeous orchestration from SIMON HALE under the direction of ANDREW CORCORAN. They aren’t the biggest band you’ll ever see on the Donald Gordon stage, but boy the sound The Howlin’ Winds deliver is enormous. They drift in and out of view on stage but are always visible with their incredible sound.
We love the treatment these songs have been given, they bring a fresh sound to each of them, while never losing the heart and soul that Dylan had skilfully etched into them.
It’s difficult to convey just how good cast are when they come together on stage. The way they move in and out of the songs, sometimes hidden in the dark, occasionally stepping up to the mic, is clever and really well choreographed. There’s also not a lot of dancing on stage but what we have is slick and really well routined.
RAE SMITH’S set and costume design has really captured the bleakness of the 1930s depression, looking well worn in places and with MARK HENDERSON’S lighting we feel completely immersed in this sometimes dark, shadowy world.
Conor has written the story around the music and the cast vocals are electrifying. But there is a story here too and one which doesn’t shy away from those things which shape our lives. The tragic events of the past which continue to haunt our characters. The story is dramatic, to say the least with references to race and sexual abuse, with the songs cleverly wrapped around the plot.
What is so different about the show is the way the characters step away from the story and perform directly to us in the audience, with some good old style microphones on stage. Even as we’re sat in our seats, with the lights up, the show starts all around us. It takes a few seconds to realise what’s going on but it instantly grabs your attention and pulls you into the story.
I tell you this to remind you to be in your seats in plenty of time.
I’ve waited a long time to see GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY but the wait to see it again won’t be quite as long.
I can’t lie, I’m not the biggest Bob Dylan fan, but this show has given me a renewed appreciation of the genius of his songwriting. I found new meaning and life in what are incredible songs, whether you’re a fan of the man or not.
The production is at the Wales Millennium Centre for the rest of the week and I would urge you to try and see this show. It isn’t festive but it is uplifting and rousing in its own unique way, I loved every moment of this powerful production, and this is one I’ll revisit again and again.
Performances are at 7:30pm each evening with 2:30pm matinees on Thursday and Saturday. For more details, and tickets, which start at £15.50, go HERE.