Girl From The North Country – 3Olympia Theatre – Review
Sat 25th Jun 2022 – Sat 30th Jul 2022
How many Boby Dylan songs can you name? For most people, they’d get to four or five before they’d start to struggle. Whereas for others, the works of Bob Dylan are like a religion, as they wait on various bootlegs and obscure releases. While Dylan is an incredibly well-known musician, he doesn’t have a vast number of hit singles. In that sense, he’s an odd choice for a jukebox musical, but then again, this is not your average musical! With Conor McPherson acting as both writer and director, that was never going to be the case.
The play is set in the lakeside port of Duluth, Minnesota in 1934 (which just happens to be the city where Dylan was born in 1941). The great depression hangs over the residents of the city and they’re struggling to get by. The play focuses on a boarding house run by Nick Laine (Colin Connor). Nick is an effervescent character, but his troubles with the bank are starting to get on top of him. His wife, Elizabeth (Frances McNamee), has one of those mental illnesses you only ever see on stage or screen. For the most part, she’s away with the fairies, other than for the odd moment of complete lucidity where she delivers cutting insights on those around her!
The couple have two children, one is called Marianne (Justina Kehinde), a child they adopted after she was abandoned in their guesthouse. Their son Gene is a young man who dreams of becoming a writer while living in an alcoholic fog. The other characters are those who pass through the guest house including a bible salesman and a former boxer. There is also some local colour, in the form of a doctor and his wife. Mrs Neilson (Keisha Amponsa Banson) offers salvation to Nick and his financial difficulties in the form of a fortune that is just out of reach.
There are 19 actors on stage (13 listed as Cast and another 6 as Ensemble), and we get to hear elements of the lives of most of these characters. It has the feel of a community on stage, who move in and out of each other’s lives.
Conor McPherson serves as writer and director of this piece. He is known for plays such as The Weir, The Seafarer and The Night Alive. The playwright was approached by Dylan’s management team to write a play based on or around his music. The work is not a collaboration and McPherson was given free rein to create something new. “The good thing about it was that he really left me alone and didn’t try to control it at all.” said McPherson in a recent interview.
The relationship between the songs and the text seems tenuous to say the least. While the songs are suited to a particular scene or moment in the script, the lyrics have little to do with the plot. There is one exception to this, where the story of the pugilist guest of the boarding house mirrors the Dylan song Hurricane, but at other times, there is little or no connection. The play and the music seem to inhabit different worlds, with some of the mentally challenged characters finding stability and full voice during the songs. Radio microphones are pushed centre stage and the play suddenly becomes a concert, with the singers performing directly to the audience.
The musical element of the production is very impressive. The songs of Dylan are changed considerably, with a musical arrangement including piano, fiddle, guitar, accordion, double bass and drums. Instead of Dylan’s folk style, they are often transformed into Gospel and Blues songs, with the full cast adding choral elements or layered backing vocals. Most of the cast have their moment as lead vocalists.
You could argue that this is neither fish nor fowl, but as the elements of music and theatre both work individually, does it really matter? The story of the inhabitants of Duluth, Minnesota is strangely captivating. We piece together their various stories from offhand comments and wonder about their lives. The music is possibly the most impressive element and the vocal performances of some of the cast are a delight. You’d happily see these performers in a concert production without the plotline. The songs of Dylan have given us hundreds of different characters and insights, this production inhabits a similar world and tells a tale worthy of Dylan’s songs.