These days jukebox musicals, seen as guaranteed crowd pleasers, are commonplace up and down the country, entertaining those visiting the glittering west end and sending audiences flocking to their regional theatres in their droves. These popular shows often rely heavily on a singer/group’s most well-known hits, the types of songs that have theatregoers proclaiming, ‘hey I know this one’ and sending them home with a tune stuck in their heads, but sometimes a show can deep dive into an artist’s back catalogue and find some different, something with a special spark, and use it to their full advantage. And that is exactly what has happened here with ‘Girl From The North Country’ written and directed by Conor McPherson with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan.
This show follows the lives of those who cross paths in a guesthouse in the heartland of America in the middle of the great depression. The owners Nick and Elizabeth Laine are rapidly running out of money and are clinging on for all that they have as Elizabeth fights with Dementia, desperately trying to convince their drunken would-be writer son Gene to find work and trying to find some stability for their adopted daughter Marianne, who finds herself single and pregnant in a society that will look down on her for that and for the colour of her skin. With visitors to the guesthouse including widow Mrs Neilson waiting to come into money, Reverend Marlowe the bible salesman, troubled boxer Joe, the Burke family with their learning-disabled son and Mr Perry, a local shop owner, lives and paths intertwine as they work their way both through the depression and their own personal battles.
Whilst many jukebox musicals shoehorn songs into a story, this production instead uses the songs to push the story along, with instrumentals of Dylan songs being used in scene changes and songs being performed both in the space of dialogue and as concert like moments.
At this performance the role of Nick Laine was played by Graham Kent, and with a lot of the action impacting upon this character, Kent excels in allowing the audience to see the emotional turmoil he goes through, the ups and the downs as he tries to do best by his family and work towards a better life for himself. Frances McNamee is a scene stealer as his wife Elizabeth, deeply affected by dementia. She is able to show what the illness is doing to her, separating her from her family as they become her carers and she is able to inject some wonderfully comical moments with the character saying exactly what she is thinking throughout and not caring what people say about it. Vocally, McNamee is also extraordinary with her performances of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ and ‘Forever Young’ raising the roof.
In his professional debut, Gregor Milne proves himself to be one to watch as the troubled Gene Laine, dreaming of becoming a writer but blighted by drink. He struggles to deal with his mother’s illness, picking fights both with guests and his own feelings. Frankie Hart took on the role of Marianne Laine at this performance, a feisty young women who despite finding herself in a situation that society frowns upon, isn’t afraid to speak her mind. Joshua C Jackson impresses as boxer Joe, trying to move on from a troubled past and find a new life for himself with Jackson’s powerful and soulful vocals soaring over the auditorium with ease.
Whilst a lot of the actions centres around the Laine family, some other characters such as Ross Carswell's Elias Burke, Eve Norris’ Katherine Draper and Eli James’ Reverend Marlowe feel a little less developed and worked with. They come in with interesting stories, but such stories are left a little bit too much to the imagination of the audience, starting out then dropping off with little explanation.
The music is beautiful throughout, played by a combination of an on-stage band and the actors themselves, with some of Dylan’s more known songs only touched upon and the spotlight truly shined on that back catalogue that showcase the great artists storytelling ability. The songs fit seamlessly into the action, picking out points in the characters life and pushing the story onwards. With a number of the songs performed with on stage microphones, there is a concert feel at numerous points, with dance numbers happening behind at times creating the atmosphere of a thanksgiving party and at others a powerful sense of coming together in prayer or protest with impactful movement. There is a stripped back feel, with acapella taking centre stage and numerous cast members performing around a single microphone.
‘Girl From The North Country’ is a beautiful piece of theatre, showcasing powerhouse vocals and emotional performances throughout. There is a beauty the simplicity of the piece, with the light allowed to shine on the music and the storytelling within it. Whilst it may not be full of songs that you instantly know, which may disappoint some Bob Dylan fans, you find yourself drawn into the story and the way in which the music is so effortlessly slotted in.
'Girl From The North Country' runs at Theatre Royal Plymouth until Saturday 5th November before continuing on its UK Tour https://girlfromthenorthcountryshow.com/#book