Tuesday 6th September 2022 at York Theatre Royal
Girl from the North Country has proven to be a hit on Broadway, in the West End and on tour. It’s a winding, episodic tale following a group of lost souls in a Minnesota boarding house circa 1934, set to the songs of the great Bob Dylan.
An odd combination of characters cross paths, each navigating a selection of life’s hurdles: broken familial relationships; covert romantic connections; fractious meetings between strangers; the echoes of past traumas and the threat of new ones as America sinks beneath the weight of The Depression.
Conor McPherson’s writing skilfully weaves together the threads of these various lives and it’s impressive to see how his direction defines those threads so well amidst the bustle of such a busy space. Rae Smith’s scenic and costume design offer instant transportation to another time and place, straying from the vibrancy we often associate with musicals in favour of highlighting both the threadbare nature of the domestic space and the stark contrasts we see in the economic pecking order.
Within a busy and accomplished cast of actor-musicians, Frances McNamee is a standout. Her performance as the troubled Elizabeth Laine is full of jarring physicality, comical eccentricity and words with jagged edges as she struggles to co-habit with husband Nick (Colin Connor) and daughter (Justina Kehinde). Elizabeth’s fidgeting and defiant silences are a constant source of intrigue, but when it comes to lifting her voice in song, McNamee’s performance is piercingly expressive, capable of locating that elusive shiver down the spine. Hers is a performance that needs no spotlight.
And where McNamee excels in both the excesses and the subtleties, Connor and Kehinde do so primarily with the latter, giving grounded, precise performances which communicate the angst of their situations with moving force. Even while facing the perils of the depression, racism and the precarious positions of failing breadwinners and powerless women in 1934, McPherson’s writing has them worrying and lamenting through insightful dialogue and aptly placed songs rather than screaming and shouting – and it works.
It’s interesting to approach this show as someone with limited knowledge of Bob Dylan’s music (I know, I know) because I think where others who knew and loved the songs were able to find their resonance instantaneously, I had to look (and listen) a little harder to connect the lyrics with the plot playing out in front of me. Either way, whether you’re a Dylan fan or not, Girl from the North Country offers a close and entertaining study of complex lives, complete with some beautiful melodies delivered by wonderful voices.
Girl from the North Country plays York Theatre Royal until September 10th 2022 – you can find more information and tickets here. The production then continues its tour until March 2023 – tickets and information can be found here.