Conner McPherson’s Girl From the North Country is a very human tale of chance – a meditation on both good fortune and bad luck. Returning to the West End after its critically acclaimed runs at London’s Old Vic and the Noel Coward Theatre across 2017 and 2018, the musical is now revived by an entirely new cast. Suffused with the songs of Bob Dylan, McPherson’s musical is based in a guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota – Dylan’s birthplace – in the wake of the 1930’s Depression.
While more laboured than its initial staging, this production remains sublime. The synergy too, between song and story is an intoxicating one. Plagued with a certain melancholia, its characters are confronted by the bleaker aspects of the human experience – the unforgiveable nature of time, of its passing, of aging, of illness and above all, the certainty (and uncertainty) caused by death. Yet, Girl From the North Country is infallible in its humour and ability to make light out of the darkest of circumstances.
Here, parents and partners are pushed to their limits. Velvety group numbers – “Slow Train Coming” is a particular highlight – are offset by more silvery solo performances. The arrangements (by Simon Hale) are superb, with Dylan’s lyrics transformed and wound effortlessly into the lives of those onstage using a live band. It seems that the actors have worked hard to take ownership of the musical, their performances not a perfect mirror of their predecessors, but instead made anew. Now played by Katie Brayben, the character of Elizabeth Laine – wife of Nick Laine and joint manager of the boarding house prior to her diagnosis with dementia – especially, sees a stark removal from Shirley Henderson’s earlier portrayal.
Where Henderson showcased a more childlike and fragile sensibility, Brayben maximises well-known symptoms presented by dementia sufferers – namely of sexual aggression and unexpected, violent outbursts. Naturally, the number “Rolling Stone” is markedly different as a result. While lacking Henderson’s delicacy and nuance, Brayben attacks the music with the feverish agitation common to that of one losing their grip on reality.
The set too (designed by Rae Smith), sees the action play out against moving backdrops. Made with a diaphanous material, the very walls of the guesthouse have a habit of becoming translucent. This is perhaps a further metaphor for the gauzy threshold separating the living and the dead within the story, in addition to the tenuousness of its characters’ internal and external environments. Quite simply, Girl From the North Country continues its legacy as an unforgettable piece of theatre.