Girl From The North Country (Gielgud Theatre)

I last saw this production of Girl from the North Country when it opened at the Old Vic in 2017 with the original London cast: now it has made a welcome return for a limited-time residency in the West End. The premise is a simple one; we are in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, during the 1930s Depression. Nick and Elizabeth Laine have been long-married, but there’s little love left. She is a shell of a person with dementia, he has a black mistress (an understated but memorable performance from Rachel John) who rents rooms in the house.

The Laines have two children: Gene is a drifter who can’t settle down to a steady job, Marianne is a young black girl who was adopted when it was unheard of for a white family to take in a child of a different race. Racial tension and hostility is alive and well in 30s America, as we find when two strangers, the white Reverend Marlowe and the black Joe Scott, arrive at 3am one day looking for shelter. Marianne is being prepared for courtship with a rich and elderly local widower, Mr Parry, while Gene’s sweetheart has found better prospects.

The narrator of the story is the pragmatic Dr Walker, while the Burke family (father, mother, and son Elias who has the mental capacity of a child) are on the move from a formerly successful and settled life. The boarding house has a feel of the transient and the safe, and emotions are all set to erupt.

Katie Brayben and Shaq Taylor as Elizabeth and Joe
Katie Brayben and Shaq Taylor as Elizabeth and Joe

Conor McPherson has crafted this show from the story of the Laines, the Burkes and the strangers and added twenty songs from the back catalogue of Bob Dylan, who gave permission for any song of his to be utilised in any way. With strong harmonies and a core of actor-musicians, the lyrics of Dylan weave seamlessly into the tale, having particular potency when the characters of Elizabeth and Elias break out of their respective mental prisons and knock out show-stopping renditions of Like a Rolling Stone and Duquesne Whistle respectively.

This is a strong and special show, which displays a variety of strong characterisations throughout – Katie Brayben, Donald Sage Mackay and Sidney Kean portray their characters of Elizabeth, Nick and Mr Parry very differently than the 2017 cast (of Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds and Jim Norton respectively) but I found their versions very persuasive. As Marianne, Gloria Obianyo radiates suspicion towards those she doesn’t know but has a sunny girlish charm with her brother; and Colin Bates as Gene shines in his duet of I Want You with his lost love, Kate (Gemma Sutton).

As the strangers who unbalanced the household, Finbar Lynch makes a strong impact as the Bible salesman with the soul of a snake, and Shaq Taylor displays a great set of vocals as the troubled boxer Joe. Anna-Jane Casey and David Ganly register well as the Burkes, even spending time on the drum kit to accompany some of the numbers. The ensemble is also strong and when arranged at the back of the stage in shadow to add melodies to the songs, the effect is quite powerful (particularly in Slow Train and Hurricane).

Katie Brayben and Shaq Taylor as Elizabeth and Joe
Katie Brayben and Shaq Taylor as Elizabeth and Joe

McPherson directs and Rae Smith designs a set which uses a number of backdrops, a small amount of furniture, and at one point, a wall of twinkly stars. The small group of musicians who supplement the actors are directed by Tarek Merchant with a sense of the backwoods and Irish heritage, as well as a core understanding of the back catalogue of Bob Dylan: the songs here date from 1963 to 2012, most are obscure album tracks mined for their relevance to the story on view.

Girl from the North Country is one of the best shows currently running in the West End, and is an absolute must-see. It is in no way a jukebox musical; in fact it intelligently takes the work of one songwriter and brings his words to life to illustrate a bleak piece of tragic Americana. I note that this show does not have swathes of audience members surging to their feet at its close, although it certainly deserves it. This is a true class act – if you haven’t seen it on previous runs, don’t miss; if you have seen it before, go back. It closes on 1 February 2020.

Photo credits Cylla von Tiedermann.

LouReviews purchased a ticket to see Girl From The North Country.