York Theatre Royal – until Saturday 10th September 2022
Reviewed by Michelle Richardson
Girl From The North Country is an award winning musical by Irish playwright Conor McPherson. Developed around the music of Bob Dylan, where McPherson was given carte blanche to cherry pick through all of Dylan’s extensive back catalogue. Though set years before Dylan’s birth, McPherson decided to use the musician’s birthplace, Duluth, Minnesota, and the year 1934, right in the middle of the Great Depression.
Centring around a failing, run down guest house, where the visitors have their own stories, none as bleak as the proprietors, Nick Laine (Colin Connor) and Elizabeth Laine (Frances McNamee). Nick is a rubbish businessman, always has been, the guesthouse was in trouble way before the recession hit. Along with burying his head in the sand about money troubles, he is caring for his dementia suffering wife. Their woes aren’t helped by their son Gene (Gregor Milne), a would-be writer who is more interested in the bottle. At least they have their adopted daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde), but she has her own issues, most notably the prospect of being an unmarried mother.
Along with Laine family, we are introduced to the diverse group of people who inhabit the guesthouse. There is Mrs Neilsen (Nichola Macevilly), who is obviously having an affair with Nick, The Burkes and their boy-man son. The catalyst, which changes everything in the house, is the arrival of a bible salesman and a down-on-his-luck boxer.
This has a large cast, and every member has a wonderful voice, accompanied by a backing band on the stage, who only play instruments that were around in the 1930’s. Using old microphones, the songs are song to the audience, not to the other actors, making this not your regular musical at all, well none I’ve seen anyway, and it worked. The ensemble numbers are very powerful, pulsating with the beat of the tambourine and excellent voices.
I must admit that I beforehand I did not know of any Bob Dylan’s songs and only recognised a couple of them throughout the production. This did not matter; you do not have to be a fan. The whole cast shared great chemistry and delivered terrific performance. It touches on racism, adultery, austerity, mental health, all sounds really bleak, but there is a hint of hope, and it was a joy to watch.