Review: Girl from the North Country (New Wimbledon)

As the current tour of Girl from the North Country comes to an end this week, I decided to accept the invite to see the production for a third time, following the 2017 Old Vic and 2019 West End shows.

The combination of Conor McPherson’s 1930s set slice of Americana and a selection from the back catalogue of Bob Dylan is a interesting one.

This might be tenuously called a jukebox musical but it is much more, and Dylan allowed the show’s creators free reign to use his songs for whatever they wanted to do.

We find ourselves in the guest house (set designed by Rae Smith) run by Nick Laine (Graham Kent, bullish and resolute, in this performance) in 1934.

His wife Elizabeth (an astounding Frances McNamee) has lost her mind to dementia, their son Gene (Gregor Milne) is lost to the bottle (and as one scene proves, latent racism), and Marianne (Justina Kehinde), the young black woman they took in as a baby, works around the place.

Production photo for Girl from the North Country

Residents include Mrs Neilsen (Maria Omakinwa), a potential heiress who Nick leans on for a dream of escape, the Burkes (James Staddon and Tebecca Thornhill and son Elias (Ross Carswell), who has a mental impairment).

They are joined one stormy night by a black boxer, Joe (Joshua C Jackson), and white preacher Marlowe (Eli James), from who knows where.

Music is core to getting deep into the heart of these characters: Elizabeth, for all her pointed and crude asides, comes alive through her numbers Like A Rolling Stone and Forever Young, yet captures the fear and uncertainty of her condition.

For Gene, Marianne, and the guests, the carefully chosen songs, often completely rearranged by Simon Hale to give them a new power and purpose, give them a voice they might not have in a traditional play.

As Gene loses the girl he loves, Kate (Eve Norris), they part ways and then reassemble on different parts of the stage to sing a fractured duet of I Want You.

Production photo for Gitl from the North Country

For Marianne, carrying a baby with its dad who knows where, an arrangement to marry an elderly and wealthy local shoemaker, Mr Perry (Teddy Kempner). Her bleak situation is emphasised early in the plantive Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love).

Cleverely, all the characters (bar Nick) are employed in the musical numbers, often in silhouette against the evocative backdrops giving a sense of the world we never see outside the Laine establishment.

The movement direction by Lucy Hind is outstanding, Mark Henderson’s muted and atmospheric lighting takes us right into this grimy home where the wind lashes and the walls creak and scratch.

There are some outstanding vocal performances – some of the cast even play instruments, notably the drums, which adds to a sense of a claustrophobic couple of days and nights as the story unfolds.

Production photo for Girl from the North Country

I liked the attention to detail as the ghastly Mr Perry’s bouquet of flowers becomes as old and dried-up as he is, as Elizabeth fusses with the buttons of her cardigan, as secrets unfold.

Dr Walker (Chris McHallem) gives the piece an opening and closing narration, a conceit we’ve seen before in Miller’s A View from the Bridge. He may be the voice of reason as the sole outsider we see every day.

A nod too, goes to the hard-working band of The Howlin’ Winds, led by MD Andrew Corcaran and featuring the thumping double bass and folksy violin of Ed Mcfarlane and Ruth Elder, with guitars by Felix Strickland.

Girl from the North Country ends its UK tour for now at the New Wimbledon on 18 March, but further dates are to be announced. For tickets go here.


Photo credit: Johan Persson

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