The music of Bob Dylan is brought to life with a sombre yet captivating story from Conor McPherson. Sara Murphy was at the Wales Millennium Centre to see the double Olivier winning Girl from the North Country.
Bob Dylan is a generational icon; admired by many, loathed by others. It’s fair to say, Dylan’s music may not be everyone’s cup of tea, but that doesn’t stop Girl from the North Country from making poignant use of his music. Conor McPherson has crafted a unique narrative, and Dylan’s music lends itself well to the melancholic storyline. In McPherson’s hands, the musical is a vehicle for excellent musicianship.
Opening with a rich and sultry singing voice, the scene is set with low lighting, dusky hues and an array of musical instruments on stage – violin, double bass, mandolin, piano and drums – with the onstage string band nestled in the corner for a jazz bar aesthetic.
The musical has some brief and pertinent narration by George Arthur Walker (Chris McHallem) who informs the audience that the story begins and ends in a Minnesota guest house in 1934. The show is like a slice of life within these walls; it is real and raw, at times funny and at times moving.
The characters become quite endearing, a connection formed through witnessing their everyday lives and struggles, however there are a lot of them. Some more fleeting than others but at times it seems altogether frantic and without purpose. Nevertheless, this does contribute to the sense of chaos running throughout the storyline which makes for a surreal and amusing experience.
The staging is minimal yet effective. Set against the backdrop of 1930s floral décor, the way the ensemble move is great. Often silhouetted against a scenic backdrop or behind a translucent screen where they offer backing vocals, this is clever use of stage and scenery.
Nick Laine, the owner of the guest house and patriarch of the family, is an excellent character; played by Colin Connor who has a De Niro-esque commanding voice and sense of authority. The bouts of anger he displays are powerful and sometimes hard-hitting. Despite this, he has several funny one-liners and quips such as: “Don’t use my own double standards against me”.
The undisputed star of the show is Frances McNamee who plays the role of Elizabeth Laine – a woman with clear mental illness. She plays the part of Nick’s wife with dedication and conviction. The frantic movements and erratic dancing are captivating to watch and her acting is simply phenomenal, making the audience laugh as well as cry. She also has the most beautiful tone and her rendition of Like a Rolling Stone is pure and energetic.
There are some other great performances, not least Nick’s lover, Mrs Nielsen (Maria Omakinwa), who is an unsung hero. Singing ‘Went to See the Gypsy’ with a lightness and pleasant twang, and ‘True Love’ which is lilting and wistful. In fact, most of the songs have a subtle yet emotive effect. Dylan’s songs are perhaps samey and thematically heavy, but he is an excellent lyricist. The haunting and deep words are a fitting accompaniment for a story that has such melancholic themes.
Indeed, Girl from the North Country does not shy away from the difficult, and important, issues. Touching on: race, religion and politics, the show has a cynicism that is timely considering The Great Depression era with references to ‘The Crash’ and other American history. Gene Laine’s (Gregor Milne) alcoholism is pertinent in a post-prohibition time, as are the ever-present money woes and lack of jobs in a time of great financial strain. There are also themes relating to mental health struggles running throughout the play and the characters’ interactions show how to – and, at times, how not to – deal with mental illness.
Some other notable mentions must go to Rebecca Thornhill (Mrs Burke) who plays the drums throughout and also sings the heartfelt, ‘Sweetheart Like You’. With her stark blonde curls and red dress, both sound and visuals are captivating. The Laine’s adopted daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde) takes on one of the play’s less-animated roles, but offers another dimension to her portrayal of a young black woman who is both unmarried and expecting.
‘Make You Feel My Love’, sung by a trio of women is nowhere near long enough with only a snippet from the hit song. One of the best songs of the show however is ‘Hurricane’; an ensemble track, complete with: feet stomps, hand claps and acapella vocals, which is a mesmerising folk offering.
Whilst Girl from the North Country may not be your typical musical, (understated from start to muted bows) and apart from a little lull halfway through the second act, it has an attention-grabbing charm that means you can’t quite tear yourself away from it. Surprisingly emotional towards the end, the reality of life and loss is apparent with musings that would make one delve into their own soul.
Girl from the North Country plays at the Wales Millennium Centre until December 10th. Tickets are available here.