The years following the 1929 Wall Street Crash left many Americans (and the rest of the world) facing economic hardship – a state of affairs that lasted right up until the Second World War. It doesn’t take much imagination to see the parallels between the events from nearly 100 years ago with what is happening today, with people trying to eke out a living during these depressed times. Esteemed playwright and director Conor McPherson uses this backdrop for the show Girl from the North Country, which is currently touring the UK at the moment.
The ‘marriage’ of Bob Dylan’s songs with McPherson’s ‘book’ is a stroke of genius, as Dylan’s back catalogue is replete with songs that contain ‘echoes of yesteryear’, but touch upon perennially relevant issues. In this respect, the show is a ‘play with music’, rather than ‘a musical’ per se. And unlike some jukebox musicals that have a hit-and-miss reputation, both the show’s ‘book’ and songs are of equal substance.
Girl from the North Country takes place shortly before Thanksgiving 1934, in the town of Duluth, Minnesota. The show’s beginning is also reminiscent of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, with one of the characters doubling as the omniscient narrator – in this case, Dr Walker (Chris McHallem). Through him we’re introduced to the proprietor of a boarding house Nick Laine (Colin Connor), his wife Elizabeth (Frances McNamee) and his grown-up children Gene (Gregor Milne) and Marianne (Justina Kehinde). Like a honeycomb that beckons bees, the boarding house draws to it the desperate, the homeless, those who are down on their luck. But it is the late night arrival of the Reverend Marlowe (Eli James) and pugilist Joe Scott (Joshua C Jackson) who cause a stir in the boarding house – welcome by some, but disliked by others.
All the characters are enduring their own private battles and none more so than the Laine family. Without a head for business, the Great Depression is hitting Nick twice as hard as it could have and he faces foreclosure of the premises in December. There is also a ‘chicken and the egg’ quality to Nick and Elizabeth’s marital problems.
Elizabeth suffers from ‘dementia’, which oscillates between silence and perceptive, ‘shame-inducing’ outbursts. She also admits that she doesn’t love her husband. This has made it easier for Nick to fall into a relationship with the lodger and widow Mrs Nielsen (Maria Omakinwa), who envisage a future together. But Elizabeth also knows about their affair, so it’s debatable whether the knowledge of this relationship precipitated the death knell of Elizabeth’s unconditional love and the decline of her mental health.
Their children, meanwhile, haven’t fared much better on the happiness front. Gene struggles to find acceptance, from without and within, as a writer of repute, while Marianne has, arguably, a lot more ‘on her plate’. As an adopted child, Marianne – a young black woman with white parents in the 1930s – has never fit in anywhere. But, under mysterious circumstances, the Laines find Marianne is pregnant and have no idea of who the father is.
Understandably, Nick’s immediate thoughts are making sure his children are settled before the family is evicted and with this in mind, arranges for Marianne to be married off – much like Tzeitel in the musical Fiddler on the Roof – to a local businessman who is as old, if not older, than her ‘father’. With her family’s circumstances, options are extremely limited for Marianne, but the arrival and imminent departure of Joe Scott, an African-American who has shown an interest in her, has given her pause for thought…
Anyone looking for a saccharine, faux-nostalgic view of the 1930 won’t find it in this production. Instead, the ‘play with songs’ takes its inspiration from John Steinbeck, who wrote about the hardships of the times in The Grapes of Wrath and In Dubious Battle – unflinching in their depiction of the Great Depression, but also showcasing the human spirit in the face of adversity.
The show is respectful to Dylan’s songs, yet through their arrangements that evoke the folk and gospel tunes of the 1930s, they are arguably even better than the original versions and feel like they should always have always been sung with multiple voices. These songs include Hurricane, Jokerman, Slow Train, Like a Rolling Stone and the eponymous Girl from the North Country.
The real test for any musical is would you buy a copy of the soundtrack album? Well it has to be said that the songs are available on Spotify, but yes I would! If the tour makes its way near you, do watch it.
© Michael Davis 2023
Girl from the North Country ran at the Alexandra Theatre from 7th to 11th February. It continues its tour at:
Grand Opera House
14th February – 18th February 2023
His Majesty’s Theatre
21st February – 25th February 2023
28th February – 4th March 2023
7th March – 11th March 2023
New Wimbledon Theatre
14th March – 18th March 2023