Phil Willmott

Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at The Gielgud Theatre

Look, this isn’t for everyone. The young girl next to me was bored waiting for some funny bits or some Razzamataz. In vain. (Although there’s some up tempo numbers at the top of Act 2)

But this isn’t a piece you watch for a night’s diversion. This is a show you watch with your heart and your soul, you let its melancholia seep into your bones and you emerge understanding that felling blue can be enriching and that down-beat can be majestic.

Rachel John (Mrs Neilsen) in Girl from the North Country. Photographer: Cylla Von TiedemannRachel John (Mrs Neilsen) in Girl from the North Country. Photographer: Cylla Von Tiedemann

I love it. I made a fool of myself crying like a baby the first time I saw it when the production originated at the Old Vic and viewing it the second time was equally enriching and affecting.

I miss some of the original cast but if you didn’t see them it’ll be no loss. The new West End cast is terrific directed by the brilliant author, Connor McPherson.

What I didn’t notice previously is that, in common with other McPherson plays, it’s a ghost story and, typically, it’s a dead child who haunts the protagonists. A little girl.

Nick is the proprietor of a debt-ridden guest house in a wind-swept, rain-lashed small town in depression era America. His wife has dementia and improbably, hears a little girl, down the corridor. But whose spirit is she?

Plenty of the the motley assortment of guests have candidates in their disturbing back stories. Is she Nick’s little sister who died in a terrible childhood accident. Is she his first child who died at birth, is she the phantom pregnancy of his adopted daughter, or the girl attacked by a mentally challenged young guest, or a victim of a creepy preacher on the run from jail or...?

The unveiling of these macabre secrets is one of the chilling pleasures of this “American Gothic” production, played out on a stage saturated by gloom and shadows.

The other pleasure is the songs.

“Bob” and “Dillon” are two words usually guaranteed to have me reaching to turn off the radio. However on this occasion his repertoire has been poignantly and strikingly rearranged for the huge cast to sing in a way that emphasises the strength of the melody lines and lyrics.

They seldom precisely match the action but they always exactly match the despair, hope, anguished love and broken dreams of the characters who break out of the action to sing them superbly, accompanied by a brilliant blue grass band, augmented by other actor-musicians from the cast.

Have a night off from the tinsel and inanity of Christmas and experience a piece of theatre that dares to walk on the dark side of the human experience. We are blessed to have it back in the West End. Go!

Girl from the North Country