An exceptional piece of theatre which breaks the jukebox musical mould
Very few theatre shows have had me laughing one minute and then a silent tear falling to my cheek the next, but that is what Girl from the North Country achieved last night at The Curve Theatre, Leicester.
The performance opens with an incredibly strong band performance with Joe Scott (Joshua C. Jackson) taking the lead. This strong performance set the precedent for what was to come. I gave a nod and a smile to my friend as if to say: this is going to be exceptional.
It’s then we meet Dr Walker (Chris McHallem) who takes on the role of the narrator who breaks the fourth wall to introduce the story and set the scene. There’s something about his voice that brought calmness yet also anticipation simultaneously.
It’s 1934, Duluth, Minnesota with the Great Depression looming over. We meet Nick (Colin Connor) and Elizabeth Laine (Nichola MacEvilly), their son Gene (Gregor Milne), the cliche drunken wannabee writer and their adopted daughter, Marianne (Justina Kehinde). All with their own struggles, running a down-and-out, ready to be taken over by the bank, guesthouse. There’s plenty of waifs and strays who stop by all with their own entanglement within the storyline. They have one thing in common: hope. Hope for a future. Hope for work. Hope for a better life. But for how long is hope alone enough?
Other characters in the house are Mrs Neilsen (Maria Omakinwa) who is openly in a relationship with Nick, in front of his sick wife. The Burke family, Mr and Mrs Burke (James Staddon and Rebecca Thornhill) and their special needs son Elias (Ross Carswell). There is also boxer Joe Scott (Joshua C Jackson) and Reverand Marlowe (Eli James) and the incredibly spine-tinglingly creepy Mr Perry (Teddy Kempner).
This is not a play about Bob Dylan, neither is it your run of the mill jukebox musical. It is a spectacular strong storyline which intertwines Bob Dylan’s songs, perfectly weaved to enhance the story of its own right.
I was apprehensive that, perhaps embarrassingly, because I did not know any of Bob Dylan’s hits before watching Girl from the North Country this might impact the viewing. But, there is no need to be a Bob Dylan fan neither have a passion for his songs to not only appreciate the story but fully immerse yourself into it.
The songs are used more of an inner-working into the deeper thoughts and feelings of the characters and a means to provide a deeper dive into their lives rather than means to continue the story.
The musical performances were nothing short of exceptional, goosebumps made an appearance during the showstopper Like a Rolling Stone and the incredibly powerful rendition of Pressing On and the beautifully heartbreaking Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love). During Pressing On, I was particularly drawn to Graham Kent (ensemble) who brought such a powerful bass voice.
Every time you think there might be an element of hope for these down-and-outs another wave strikes over them with more twists and turns to remove all hope once again. But, as devastating and heart-breaking Girl from the North Country is, there’s still humour to lighten the mood which does not divert or cheapen the production.
Often, I try to pick out a key character who I mediate towards on stage. But, with Girl from the North Country, I honestly couldn’t do it. The entire casting was not only well-suited to their roles but portrayed an excellent persona regardless of whether they were playing a main character, or seamlessly transitioning into a background character or musician.
Perhaps we assume Marianne (Justina Kehinde) is the eponymous girl of the story. A black girl, abandoned by her birth parents, living in adversity rises above to eventually perhaps be the only one half of the couple who does find a happy ending. Kehinde gives a compelling performance with vocals that are powerful, passionate and emotive. There never was a moment where Marianne didn’t have a gripping storyline and emotion oozing from her. Marianne is powerful. Marianne is resilient. Marianne is strong.
Then there was Elizabeth Laine portrayed by Nichola MacEvilly who encapsulated the complex role of Elizabeth so fearlessly. She is, or should be, a broken character but, in actual fact, is incredibly powerful. Her performance of Like a Rolling Stone was stunning and her portrayal of dementia was equal parts distressing yet still the most humorous character.
Maria Omakinwa’s charisma and warmth shone through with her role as Mrs Neilson, and the only complaint I would perhaps give is that Mrs Neilson is a supporting role rather than a lead so I’d have loved to have seen more of her storyline. But, even when providing supporting vocals, Omakinwa delivered.
Lighting wise, I was truly impressed with the eloquence of it. Whether it was a smooth transition into the darkness with a soft then strong spotlight or a darkened room with candles or the stunning starry backdrop or the way the stage faded to black. There was so many moments where the lighting was not only complementary to the storyline, but acutely demanded you took notice.
Girl from the North Country is a powerful and heartbreaking musical which left no time to dwell too deeply before something else came along. It required attention and that attention to detail was reciprocated. I was fully immersed in the production and wholeheartedly could’ve sat and heard more about what these characters had to say and where their path would take them.
Girl from the North Country is a sad but impactful portrayal of the struggles of an economic crisis. If dark plays with drama, injustices and heartbreak are for you and you have an appreciation for powerful ballads and reminiscent performances of that era – then Girl from the North Country will be right up your street.
The Curve Theatre, Leicester from 7 MAR – 11 MAR 2023
Running time: 2h 30 minutes including a 20 minute interval
Age recommendation: 12+ – This production contains haze, implication of smoking, gunshot and use of strong language.
Written and Directed by Conor McPherson
Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan
Press tickets for review
Cover image credit Johan Persson
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