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Girl from the North Country

  • Theatre, Musicals
  • 3 out of 5 stars
  • Recommended
  1. Lisa McCune, Peter Kowitz in Girl from the North Country
    Photograph: Supplied/Daniel Boud
  2. Australian ensemble of Girl from the North Country
    Photograph: Supplied/Daniel Boud
  3. Blake Erickson and ensemble in Girl from the North Country
    Photograph: Supplied/Daniel Boud
  4. Callum Francis and ensemble in Girl from the North Country
    Photograph: Supplied/Daniel Boud
  5. Zahra Newman in Girl from the North Country
    Photograph: Supplied/Daniel Boud

Time Out says

3 out of 5 stars

This musical inspired by the songs of Bob Dylan is technically superb, but thematically questionable

Duluth, Minnesota, 1934: as the Great Depression kicks into high gear and winter takes the city in its icy grip, a number of characters gather at the failing boarding house operated by Nick Laine (Peter Kowitz), all of them grappling with disillusionment and loneliness – and their woes are inextricably expressed through the songs of one Bob Dylan. 

Mr and Mrs Burke (Greg Stone and Helen Dallimore) lost everything in the Crash and are traveling to find work, at the same time trying to care for their intellectually disabled adult son, Elias (Blake Erickson). Widow Mrs Neilsen (Christina O’Neill) is waiting for an inheritance from her late husband and hoping his debts and legal costs don’t leave her bankrupt. Untrustworthy bible salesman Reverend Marlowe (Grant Piro) plies his trade and dispenses dubious wisdom, while former boxer Joe Scott (Callum Francis), recently out of prison, just wants to keep his head down.

As for Nick, his business is failing, his wife Elizabeth (Lisa McCune) has dementia, he’s having an affair with Mrs Neilsen, and while his alcoholic son Gene (James Smith) harbours dreams of being a writer, his adopted African American daughter, Marianne (Zahra Newman) is pregnant to an unknown father. Nick hopes to marry her off to elderly local gentleman Mr Perry (Peter Carroll), but the arrival of the virile Joe may have thrown a spanner in the works.

All of this comes to us courtesy of Irish playwright Conor McPherson (The Weir, The Seafarer), who was originally approached by Bob Dylan’s people to craft a stage production around a number of Dylan’s songs. The result is a piece that is a little bit Our Town, with its large cast and fourth wall-breaking narrator (here it’s town doctor and morphine addict Dr Walker, played by Terence Crawford); a touch of The Iceman Cometh with its single location and desperate cast of characters; and a nod to Of Mice and Men with its potentially dangerous man-child lurking in the ensemble.

Rae Smith’s costumes and set design, coupled with the subtly burnished lighting by Mark Henderson, makes everything look like a beautifully faded sepia photograph. Simon Hale’s musical arrangement brings Dylan’s songs closer to the authentic folk experience the singer was frequently trying to emulate. There’s not a flat note in the cast, with Lisa McCune and Zahra Newman standouts as the brittle, unpredictable Elizabeth and the cherished but alienated Marianne, respectively. Point for point, element by element, the production is, on a technical level, superb.

And yet, there is a disconnect between the music being performed and the story being told. The play sheds little new light on Dylan’s songs, while the songs themselves do not seem to illuminate or complicate the action of the play. It’s as if the two exist separately; every so often the narrative stops for a Dylan tune, and more often than not the choice seems shoehorned. When Gene is having his heart broken by his would-be girlfriend, Katherine (Elizabeth Hay), they sing ‘I Want You’, apparently misreading (or ignoring) the song’s rather complicated themes. And perhaps it was inevitable that Callum Francis’s Joe would sing ‘Hurricane’, and he does an excellent job of it – however, there’s something overly on-the-nose about a fictional Black boxer singing a song about the real, falsely imprisoned, Rubin Carter.

Perhaps it’s simply that for discerning music fans, Bob Dylan’s music is just not a good fit for the jukebox musical subgenre, to which Girl From the North Country unarguably belongs to (the insistence that it’s “a play with music” rather than a musical is just marketing nonsense). Some musical artists lend themselves to this treatment – the operatic, not to mention bombastic, music of Queen in We Will Rock You comes immediately to mind – but certainly not the revered, self-serious Dylan. Even Jagged Little Pill the Musical, which will return to Sydney soon after debuting in December, manages to take the deeply personal lyrics of Alanis Morissette and convincingly apply them to a different story. 

If you’ve seen Dylan live in recent years, it’s a very no-nonsense affair – he shows up, says hello, plays his songs, walks off, no encore. The contrast between his actual work and the way it's being used here, essentially as filler in an overwrought Eugene O’Neill pastiche, is marked.

Way back in the day at a concert at Manchester's Free Trade Hall on May 17, 1966, Dylan fan John Cordwell famously yelled out “Judas!” in outrage at Dylan playing an electric set. I’d be genuinely curious to find out what he makes of this current rendition of the Dylan songbook, which pulls off the impressive trick of being impeccably mounted while still leaving discerning Dylan fans yearning for better versions of almost all of its constituent elements.

Travis Johnson
Written by
Travis Johnson


Opening hours:
Tue-Fri 7.30pm, Sat 2pm and 7.30pm, Sun 1pm and 6pm
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