A jukebox musical is a hard thing to pull off. There are obviously some that are commercially successful, but most of them aren’t exactly artistic masterpieces.* Girl From The North Country is something very special, though. Conor McPherson, writer and director, has moulded Bob Dylan’s treasures into a powerful story set in the singer’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota in the 1930s. Tonight this production has made its way to the New Wimbledon Theatre where it finishes its current tour.
(*Ok, it sounds like I’m a snob – but I promise, I won’t hear a bad word said about Bat Out of Hell.)
It’s been quite a journey to get here, from the Old Vic in 2017 to a West End transfer, to Broadway and then into Canada and Australia, so there must be something about this show. It comes with the weight of previous critical acclaim, and some expectation it will be able to fill its own big shoes. Thankfully it seems that the magic it had all along is still there – lucky us.
The show is centred around a guesthouse owned by the Laine family; a family that is falling apart. Nick Laine (played tonight by Graham Kent) is at his wits end trying to provide for them and hold them all together, from the dementia-suffering Elizabeth Laine (played by Frances McNamee) to her son, lost and love-sick Gene (Gregor Milne), and the adopted daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde) who is black in a white family, and pregnant with no sign of the father. Guests and townspeople feature, and we are whisked between several interconnecting stories that build a picture of life in a small town which manages to be both bleak and beautiful. The cast are all fantastic, with special mention due to McNamee for her performance as the waif-like but strong Elizabeth.
The book itself would hold up as a compelling play, but it’s Dylan’s iconic music that brings Girl From The North Country to life. Nineteen of his songs feature, including favourites such as ‘Make You Feel My Love’, ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Girl From The North Country’(naturally). They are reimagined, performed by the cast and the fantastic band The Howlin’ Winds, but manage to keep the beauty of the originals intact completely. Being sung within the context of a storyline can bring subtle nuance to them that may not have been there before, but they’re not treated like your typical musical number and often feel more to provide mood, feeling or impetus than to let us know what’s happening.
All elements of the show come together to make a perfect storm of a show, including the characterful set and costumes by Rae Smith, and the movement by Movement Director Lucy Hind, which gives extra vitality to Dylan’s music. The only fault in my evening was that I was sat off to one side, and must have been in a vacuum between speakers because the sound sometimes seemed quieter than what the cast were giving. But this didn’t detract from a beautiful story, filled with beautiful songs, in a beautiful theatre and a stunning performance.
Girl from the North Country plays at New Wimbledon Theatre until 18 March. Further information and bookings can be found here.