Girl from the North Country at Theatre Royal Nottingham
A lovely introduction to Bob Dylan’s music, performed beautifully by an outstanding cast.
Set in 1934, Conor McPherson’s The Girl from the North Country, takes place decades before Bob Dylan was born – an intentional choice to detach the music from the time periods it originated.
The story follows guest house owners Nick and Elizabeth, played by Colin Connor and Frances McNamee respectively. The couple has fallen on hard times as they struggle financially and deal with Elizabeth’s illness and take in a slew of characters into their home.
Elizabeth appears to be suffering from dementia, both distracted and detached from the action. In this role McNamee brings delight to the stage with her deadpan sharp retorts and dancing with abandon, choreographed beautifully by Lucy Hind.
This dysfunctional family includes aspiring author son Gene (Owen Lloyd) and pregnant adopted daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde), while the diverse assortment of guests include widow Mrs Neilsen (Nichola MacEvilly), wrongly convicted boxer Joe Scott (Joshua C Jackson), and Bible seller Reverend Marlowe (Eli James). Each character has their own struggles, squeezed into a plot which simultaneously feels sluggish but not comprehensive enough to cover everyone’s trauma.
As you enter the theatre, it would be a fair assumption that Girl from the North Country would be truly centred around music. With only a black backdrop and smoky spotlights, your attention is drawn to the instruments scattered across the stage; a piano, drum kit, double bass. On paper Dylan’s poetic lyrics could be a perfect story mechanism, however it emerges that music here acts as an interlude rather than a story driver with long periods of dialogue between tunes, and on surface level, lyrics with little relevance to the narrative. Although this is as McPherson intended, it can be rather jarring to relate the message of the two mediums making the story less cohesive than it might have otherwise been.
As a complete Bob Dylan novice, I have no reference for how Simon Hale’s musical arrangements compare to the original recording but have no doubt they do justice with the cast’s stunning vocals and harmonies. McNamee’s rendition of Like a Rolling Stone is a particular high point, building a powerful solo into a stunning ensemble number. Duets between gentle giant Joe Scott, and fierce Marianne also standout.
Mark Henderson’s lighting keeps the stage dim and atmospheric while Rae Smith’s scene design evolves from the black screen you enter to, with most of the action taking place around the dining table, central to many communities. Homely furniture fills the stage divided by interior walls descending neatly. Other backdrops are questionable; images of fields seem an odd choice to situate the action outside – especially when they only extend across half of the stage.
It’s certainly not an uplifting story, but the music makes it a heart-warming one all the same. Girl from the North Country is performing at Nottingham Theatre Royal until 15th October, and tickets can be purchased here https://trch.co.uk/whats-on/girl-from-the-north-country-22/