The thing about Girl From The North Country is that it’s so deeply personal. As a fly on the wall, watching lives spiral out of control, you can’t help but feel intrusive. But just like a car crash, there is no looking away. While the subtle blend of music combines with remarkable and rich performances to trigger a roller coaster of emotions – despair to desperate hope, profound sadness to delight – you continue to rubberneck.
Written and directed by Conor McPherson, Girl features 22 Bob Dylan songs – I want You, You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere, Hurricane and of course Girl From the North Country among them – reflective rather than forced, more ambiguous than popular hits. The difference between Girl and other popular ‘jukebox’ musicals (think Mamma Mia, We Will Rock You, Dusty) is that this is a story which stands strongly on its own, unreliant on the songs for connection. Its ensemble of characters, rich and diverse, uplifting and tragic, move about the stage joining together to sing and play instruments, (who knew Helen Dallimore could play the drums!) supported by four on-stage musicians. It’s the acting which binds the show, the subtlety of the songs enhances it. In fact, they blend so fluidly, seamlessly filling a pause in conversation, there’s no time to react, and most unusually applause is forgotten to allow the conversations to resume.
It’s 1934, a cold, bleak winter in Minnesota’s Midwest, Duluth to be precise and Dylan’s birthplace. Times certainly ‘were a changin’, (the song oddly, excluded from the repertoire) but not for the better. America was on its knees, in the grip of The Great Depression, as lives are destroyed overnight and futures remain perilously uncertain.
We’re taken to a dilapidated boarding house run by Nick Laine (Peter Kowitz), a refuge for outcasts who have nothing in common, bar enduring hardship and secrets. Nick is facing foreclosure, burdened further by his mentally ill wife Elizabeth (Lisa McCune), alcoholic would-be writer son Gene (James Smith) and adopted black pregnant daughter, Marianne (Zahra Newman).
McCune is consistently disturbing as Elizabeth, who beset by dementia is unpredictable and fragile, shining in brief moments of canny, and her rendition of Forever Young is powerful and heartbreaking. While Kowitz does not sing, (it’s what convinced him to take the role), his performance is one of the strongest, exhausted but mindful he struggles to rescue his family and grandfather’s guest house while clinging to a little solace from the widowed Mrs Neilsen (Christina O’Neill).
Then there’s Joe (Callum Francis) the black boxer fresh out of prison; Reverend Marlow (Grant Piro) the travelling bible salesman, more hypocrite than righteous; elderly shoemaker Mr Perrry (Peter Carroll ) a simple but ghastly inappropriate solution for Marianne; and Dr Walker, (Terence Crawford) the part-time narrator whose pitch perfect mid-western drawl reminds us exactly where we are – stuck in the middle of nowhere.
The sets are fluid, with largely dim lighting creating a hopeless atmosphere, while vignettes subtly lit at the rear and projections on the back wall, add more detail to the scene unfolding centre stage.
This is more of a drama enhanced intuitively by song than a musical. It’s haunting and compelling, with an outstanding cast dropping you effortlessly into an abyss of despair before lifting you up to the horizon of hope. Go see it.