Girl from the North Country at Gielgud Theatre
With a tender dialogue between acting and singing, McPherson moulds a story for the stage that both touches the heart and pleases the ears. Smooth transitions and a deft cast give shape to Dylan’s poetic music.
Nick (Donald Sage Mackay) and Elizabeth (Katie Brayben) have a guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota. The latter, affected by dementia, speaks her mind, giving voice at times to truths that normally go politely unsaid. The Depression of the early 30s in America hits the cunning and the unfortunate in equal measure. A varied crowd passes by, some coming from nowhere and only staying for a short time – like boxer Joe (Shaq Taylor) – others moving in for a longer period, waiting for the release of their wealth – like the widow Mrs Neilsen (Rachel John). Connecting them all is their tenancy under the same roof: they come from different circumstances, but all are limping towards survival. For the Laine couple, though, there is also a shadowy past.
The format of the production reimagines the idea of a conventional musical. Microphone stands appear as the songs are perfectly intertwined with the script, not in an elevated conversation among the cast members, but during small acts within the act: singing moments fo the audience to enjoy which create a pause in the flow of the narrative. The actors remain in their characters – extravagant, flirtatious, pensive –, they pick up an instrument (only those which existed in the 30s have been allowed in) and play the notes. The music doesn’t simply accompany; it sustains the sequences.
Dylan’s songs have quite a low and rough register that the artists brilliantly embrace. The feminine voices prevail, with Brayen proving phenomenal – in every part of her performance, particularly the disconnected stage movements –, followed closely by the warm sound of Obianyo and the resonant John. The hushed voiceover of Fedy Roberts fills in the few gaps in the storyline with velvety entrances and an easiness that fascinates.
The selection made from Dylan’s archive is praiseworthy. With hits from 1963 Girl from the North Country to 2012 with Duquesne Whistle, the list includes more popular and lesser-known singles. Like a Rolling Stone, striking right at the heart of the loneliness during a key decision-making moment, gets a wonderful arrangement, while earlier on Slow Train is another rich choral highlight.
This show is not concerned with being sugary or having a happy ending – it’s not a fairy tale – but rather a rediscovery of the weak and emotional tissues we are made of. The struggles of understanding and dealing with a disease, economical downfall, out-of-the-ordinary family circumstances are there, in plain sight. But compassion and a strong sense of caring for fellow human beings are the bottom line.
Photos: Cylla Von Tiedemann
Girl from the North Country is at Gielgud Theatre from 10th December until 1st February 2020. For further information or to book visit the theatre’s website here.