The term ‘jukebox’ musical conjures up images of women of a certain age cavorting to Abba tracks in the Greek sunshine or the high pitched falsetto of Franki Valli in 1960’s America. However, despite emanating from this rather dispiriting genre, ‘Girl from the North Country’ is a very different beast from ‘Mamma Mia’ and ‘Jersey Boys’, proving that this type of musical can have literary and artistic merit as well as providing first class entertainment.
The first surprise is that it is based around the music and lyrics of Mr Robert Zimmerman, a.k.a Bob Dylan, the poster boy of the 1960’s counter culture being the last person you would expect to see lending his name to such an ostensibly commercial enterprise. Curiosity is piqued even more when Conor McPherson is added to the mix as writer and director, his dark plays of interwoven lives being more often seen at the Royal Court than in the West End or Broadway. This time McPherson takes us to a run down boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression in the United States, where the desperate and the criminal have washed up, the detritus of a capitalist system that has broken almost beyond repair.
We meet Dr Walker (Chris McHallem) who acts as the narrative voice throughout the evening, retrospectively looking from beyond the grave as events unfold, introducing us to the myriad characters that pass through the doors. The family at the centre are proprietor Nick Laine (Colin Connor) and his wife Elizabeth (Frances McNamee), with their son Gene (Gregor Milne) and adopted daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde); their boarding house on the verge of repossession and their daughter pregnant with an unwanted child. The Burke family arrive, husband and wife with a son harbouring a dark secret (Neil Stewart, Rebecca Thornhill & Ross Carswell); a bible salesman and a boxer (Owen Lloyd & Joshua C Jackson) seeking shelter, have a deeper connection than at first glance. Long term resident Mrs Nielsen (Nichola Macevilly) and the lonely neighbour Mr Perry (Teddy Kempner) complete this disparate bunch of characters. Their separate stories gradually enmesh through the course of the evening as unexpected relationships develop and truth is revealed. A cautionary tale for our times, showing how quickly existing certainties and fortunes can crumble; the flip side of the ‘American Dream’.
Weaved into this complex and dense narrative structure are the songs of Dylan, culled from forty albums spanning the five decades of his career. McPherson has been eclectic in his choices, rejecting the conventional idea of using only hit records, he delved deep into the back catalogue to produce twenty songs that demonstrate the enormous range and versatility of Dylan. So, whilst we do get to hear ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ (pleasing the aged hippies in the Salford audience), this is far from a greatest hits compilation. The songs are chosen to serve the mood of the story, rather than showcase a medley from the musician as so many ‘jukebox’ musicals choose to do. Another ‘golden rule’ is broken in that lyrically the songs often bear no resemblance to what is depicted around them, they do not ‘advance the narrative’, but rather act as tonal reference points for the story, it is a beautiful and beguiling structure that works to great effect here.
As befits a production of this quality, the musicianship exceeds expectations, with the four-piece band ‘The Howlin’ Winds’ (Andrew Corcoran as MD) ably supplemented by actor-musicians in the main cast, adding drums and the obligatory harmonica (It is Dylan after all!) to the violins, guitars, piano and double bass. Playing out against the deceptively simple flat scenery and back projections by Designer Rae Smith, the cavernous space of the Lyric felt slightly too large even for a production with over twenty people on stage at any time but given this is a touring production having to accommodate venues of varying size, this small flaw can be forgiven.
The performances were uniformly excellent, but I reserve special praise for Nichola Macevilly stepping up from the ensemble into the role of Mrs Neilsen and matching the more experienced performers effortlessly, her portrayal displayed Mrs Neilsen’s graceful charm and stoicism to excellent effect. At the interval, I was concerned that the structure had strayed into a series of vignettes rather than a narrative whole, but by the conclusion my fears had been allayed as McPherson brings the piece to a satisfying conclusion. His writing brings in an unmistakable whiff of Kerouac and Steinbeck, melding beat culture sensibilities with 1930’s realism, the multiple characterisations adds James Joyce into the mix and the narration echoes Thornton Wilder; when overlayed with musicality it creates a rich and heady brew.
Given that this show had its Broadway run curtailed by the pandemic in March 2020 following a transfer after its successful London outing, it is heartening to see that theatre producers are willing to give this show such an extensive tour in the UK. Judging by the full house and audience reaction in Salford last night, there is clearly an audience for this type of intelligent and subtle musical.
Verdict: A musical for the purist, beautifully structured and executed. A major work played out in a minor key.
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 20th September 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★