‘The Girl from the North Country’ goes west again, as Conor McPherson’s highly acclaimed musical, using the back catalogue of legendary American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, opens at the Gielgud Theatre. This follows the previous West End transfer of the original Old Vic production in 2017. Once again, it’s performed and sung with electric energy.
McPherson’s book is a haunting slice of Depression-era Americana that draws not only on Dylan’s songbook but finds inspiration in the sad, vivid pages of authors like John Steinbeck and other chroniclers of the wrenching upheaval of the 1930s in the US. It takes place in 1934, in Duluth, Minnesota – Dylan’s birthplace, but seven years before he was born.
Nick Laine (Donald Sage Mackay) is trying to keep his failing boarding house afloat in a sea of debt, while resentfully looking after his dementia-suffering wife Elizabeth (Katie Brayben), as well their adopted daughter, Marianne (Gloria Obianyo), who is unmarried and pregnant, and Gene (Colin Bates), their alcoholic son. The Laines’s crumbling home has become a place of last resort for America’s outcast and abandoned.
McPherson understatedly explores the cross-currents of poverty, racism and mental illness at a time when deep, ugly social divisions were laid painfully bare by economic hardship. His writing is both blunt and poignant, weaving together disparate lives with tough, twisted threads. Shaq Taylor’s ex-con and ex-boxer Joe Scott and Marianne are united by the bigotry that will always trip their step as people of colour. Obianyo, in particular, sings with gut-wrenching forlornness.
Against this backdrop, it would be easy for the entire production to descend into a kind of numbing, unremitting misery. But McPherson is better than that. His characters know how to laugh as well as cry. In Brayben’s wonderfully physical performance, Elizabeth’s fragments of lucidity cut sharply through the bullshit. She’s funny and spiky. She sees through the shadowy Reverend Marlowe, Finbar Lynch’s darkly glinting figure of hypocrisy and smiling venom.
And all of this is held tenderly, lovingly and angrily together by Dylan’s music as the emotional swell to Lucy Hind’s choreography. From the iconic ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to the gospel overtones of his unloved born-again Christian period in the ’80s, the songs – as arranged by Simon Hale – feel liberated from the incessant analysis that always accompanies them. They’re beautiful, complicated odes to the crisscrossing routes of love and hurt through the dusty corners of bruising lives.