Play? Musical? That’s one thing no one can agree on with one of London’s newest transfers from a critically acclaimed run at the Old Vic Theatre, Girl from the North Country, featuring an array of Bob Dylan’s hit songs but not in the way you know them. They have been weaved into a story of longing, sadness, and missed opportunities but not in the usual ‘jukebox musical’ fashion: in this show, a lot of the songs don’t serve to advance the plot; Conor McPherson, the playwright, has said that instead, the show is ‘a conversation between the songs and the story’. This is at times deeply affecting but at others, rather confusing, leaving the audience wondering what a certain song was supposed to be showing. The story also had elements of this: it was very emotional and moving at times, almost reducing me to tears, but some of the plot threads just didn’t seem as though they were going anywhere.
This is not to detract from any of the performances which are absolutely fantastic across the board. Sheila Atim plays Marianne Laine, the adopted daughter who is black, pregnant and unmarried in a time of great prejudice, capturing brilliantly the innocence of youth, constantly hoping for a better life. She sings beautifully, particularly with a rendition of Tight Connection to the Heart which was the first moment in the show to start making me emotional. Also particularly impressing me with their singing were Emmanuel Kojo who was on as Joe Scott when I saw the show, giving Slow Train Coming and Hurricane a new twist with his smooth and velvety voice, and Claudia Jolly as Katherine Draper who sings I Want You gorgeously.
Bronagh Gallagher is absolutely heartbreaking as Mrs. Burke, in what was one of the most emotional plot threads of the whole show. Her rich and gravelly voice is also lovely to listen to and I loved her rendition of Sweetheart Like You. Playing her disabled son, Elias, and husband, Mr. Burke, were Jack Shalloo and David Ganly respectively, who also both gave beautiful performances, again showcasing extremely powerful voices and playing their emotional scenes with grace and respect. Sam Reid gets to show off his raspy and gravelly voice as Gene Laine, the aspiring writer struggling to find meaning in his life.
Notable West End actress Debbie Kurup (known for performances in such shows as Rent, Anything Goes, and Chicago) plays Mrs. Neilson, the disgruntled mistress of Ciarán Hinds’ character, Nick Laine. Kurup‘s character wants more from life, showing her sarcastic side with some great one-liners and reactions, and singing Went to See the Gypsy and True Love Tends to Forget with her signature rasp and gravelly tones. Hinds plays Nick Laine impeccably well, really showing his skill as an actor in a difficult role that he plays with strength, vulnerability and compassion, relating to the audience a sense of desperation and wanting the best for the people he cares about but not being quite sure how to go about this. His performance is deeply compelling and its a joy to watch him play a difficult role so effortlessly.
The show only belongs to one person, however, and that is Shirley Henderson as Elizabeth Laine, Nick’s wife and Gene and Marianne’s mother, suffering from dementia. Henderson (best known for her role of Moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter series) is the epitome of phenomenal in this role, beginning the show as little more than being portrayed as mad before growing to show that she is far more aware of goings on than people realised. Her performance is deeply emotional and moving, but she is also very funny, getting some great one-liners, and shows off what is a phenomenal voice, which surprised me when I first heard her: her performance of Like a Rolling Stone gave me chills!
Rae Smith’s set and costume design serve the show well, fitting the bleak world very well, with Mark Henderson’s lighting also fitting this, definitely adding a great deal of ambience to the show. Simon Baker’s sound design gives the musical numbers a great deal of power and oomph, adding to the joy of hearing them.
If you want to hear some amazing singing and see some extremely strong performances in a show that is well put together, but a bit muddled at times, visit https://www.girlfromthenorthcountry.london/ for more information. Emmanuel Kojo takes over from Arinzé Kene from 10th March and plays all matinée performances until then. The show closes on 24th March but will transfer to the Princess of Wales Theatre in Toronto in February 2019 – visit https://www.mirvish.com/shows/girl-from-the-north-country for more information. Casting for the transfer is to be announced.