It is a truth universally acknowledged that Bob Dylan is one of the great music titans of the 20th century, but as someone only dimly aware of his songs, I approached this production featuring his music with a little trepidation. Would I need to be a fan to get it? I wondered.
Luckily for me The Girl from the North Country did that thing that theatre does when it really works, created a magical, unforgettable experience.
The musical takes place in the early 1930s in a Duluth, Minnesota set in a bustling boarding house where the impoverished owner Nick Laine (Donald Sage MacKay) and his demented wife Elizabeth Laine (Katie Brayben) etch out a living in the depression era. The boarding house provides the scenic backdrop for a range of troubled characters. The son Gene (Colin Bates) who aspires to being a writer but excels in being a drunk. Marianne (Gloria Obianyo), the black adopted daughter of the innkeeper who has got herself into the family way. A widower is waiting for her dead husband’s estate to pay out and a couple of mysterious men who turn up in the middle of the night.
The talent of the cast is immense. The musical performances, spellbinding.
The narrative is light but engrossing. We see just enough to keep us interested in the storylines of the key characters and developments. We watch how Marianne’s future will unfold against the proposals of the much older Mr Perry (Sidney Kean), who promises to make an honest woman out of her. However, the true magic is in the credibility of the characters. The characters’ troubles and preoccupations provide the gateway to Dylan’s songs and allow the actors to offer up charged emotional performances that spirit the audience away from their seats in the Gielgud Theatre. The actors sing songs to the audience not each other, so there’s a sense that they are letting out their innermost souls and we feel it. There a sense of restless energy about this play, the characters are just trying to survive the best way they know how.
The talent of the cast is immense. The musical performances, spellbinding. A rendition of Rolling Stone by Katie Brayben left me open-mouthed and wide-eyed. Note perfect, but it also touched the depths of one’s soul. And the oaky timbre of Gloria Obianyo’s voice especially on Tight Connection to my Heart, felt like a privilege to hear.
Written and directed by Conor McPherson, The Girl from the North Country is a play that breathes timeless spirit into Bob Dylan’s music and lyrics and calls on the audience to bear testimony to life and humanity, warts ‘n’ all. This is one for grandmother, father, and teenager alike. The production leaves you enlivened.