Review by Rosie Holmes
For all intents and purposes, Girl from the North Country is a jukebox musical. Using the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, the show transports us to 1934 depression era America, Duluth, Minnesota to be specific and also the birthplace of Dylan himself. However, this is not a jukebox musical in the typical sense, Dylan’s songs are hauntingly beautiful and in this case inspire the show rather than dictate the narrative. Originally opening at the Old Vic in 2017 and since then has enjoyed runs in the West End and on Broadway where it picked up two Oliviers and a Tony award. Having also received plenty of critical acclaim, this was a show I was definitely intrigued to see. But would I love it as much?
Girl from the North Country is set within a boarding house on the brink of closure, where Nick Laineis caring for his mentally ill wife, Elizabeth, along with his pregnant adopted daughter Marianne and his alcoholic son Gene. The rest of the cast are made up of guests passing through the boarding house including Mrs Neilsen (Nick’s lover), Joe Scott (a wrongly convicted boxer) and the Burkes who are struggling to cope with their son Elias’ learning disabilities. We see the intertwining of the characters that live and pass through the boarding house and the effect of the depression on them all. What is remarkably scary is the worrying amount of parallels that can be drawn from this depression era story to 2023 UK in the midst of a cost of living crisis.
This is certainly an ensemble piece, whilst there are absolutely some standout performances, it’s a show with a large cast that provides both some of the piece’s strengths and weaknesses as Conor McPhersons book perhaps suffers by having too many individual characters. Whilst the idea of temporariness and the momentary meeting of people’s lives requires a fair few characters, I can’t help but feel there are just too many. Poignant scenes that should be extremely emotive felt diluted because individually our character’s storylines are underdeveloped and their personalities sometimes one dimensional. Therefore, the show become less engaging. Had there been fewer characters and more of a chance for us to get to know the characters stories, I feel the result would have been far more impactful.
The show is closed with our ‘narrator’ character Dr Walker, played by Chris McHallem providing a summary of how our characters’ stories end. Whilst this was needed for clarity, I can’t help but feel that a show shouldn’t need this explicit summing up of storylines and this for me exposed the weakness in the chaotic narrative.
As mentioned, this is a jukebox musical like no other I have seen before. Dylan’s songs don’t drive the narrative, instead the piece is very much inspired by his songs. The musical sections are also not necessarily performed in character and are sung directly to the audience in more of a concert style with standing microphone. As a result, I found the introduction of songs to be often jarring and sometimes confusing, I wasn’t always sure exactly what was meant to be happening.
That being said, the performance of these songs were all executed wonderfully. The casts voices, accompanied by onstage band the ‘The Howlin’ Winds’ created something rather special, while some of Dylan’s most famous songs were notably absent – perhaps surprisingly or disappointingly for some.
Whilst the narrative was perhaps one of the weaknesses of the show, the cast were absolutely not. Although the characters they played required more time with the audience to make an impact, the performances by the cast that played them still managed to deliver a punch.
Absolutely worth a mention is Frances NcAmee in the role of Elizabeth Laine. Suffering with dementia, NcAmee’s Elizabeth delivers a wonderful portrayal of fragility but also showcases her wonderful comic timing as her lines are peppered with sarcasm and wit. This is often a much-needed comic anecdote to the otherwise sombre depression era setting. NcAmee also delivered some of my favourite vocal performances of the night with the rousing ‘Like a rolling stone’ and the touching and poignant ‘Forever Young.’
Alongside her, Justina Kehinde stars as Marriane, her adopted, pregnant daughter. Kehinde’s portrayal of Marianne is delicate yet fierce and her vocals pitch perfect. Similarly, in her short time on stage, Maria Omakinwa still manages to shine, as Mrs Nelisen, making the most of her moments on stage with a gorgeous rendition of ‘Went to see the gypsy’.
The set design by Rae Smith is mostly effective. The large stage at the New Wimbledon Theatre never feels empty and the effect is almost cinematic. The set perfectly encapsulates 1930s America, although works best with the actual set pieces rather than the large projections which often seem out of place and sometimes confusing, making it unclear exactly where the action is taking place.
Girl from the North Country has garnered a large amount of fans, and many were definitely present in the audience last night. This show I believe will continue to be divisive. The framing and structure of the show is definitely admirable and it is always exciting to see a new take on something, especially a jukebox musical. However, for me, removing just a few of the characters and allowing for further development of those remaining would have created a much more impactful show.
While I may not have personally been as won over as some others, there is no doubt that this show has some huge strengths going for it – namely its wonderful cast and gorgeous vocal arrangements that completely transform the works of Bob Dylan into something fresh and new.
Girl from the North Country is currently playing at New Wimbledon Theatre until Saturday 18th March 2023, in the final part of its UK tour, tickets can be purchased here- Girl from the North Country Tickets | New Wimbledon Theatre in Greater London | ATG Tickets