By Paul Kiely
Lisa McCune, Peter Carroll and Peter Kowitz. Photo by Daniel Boud.
Girl from the North Country
By Conor McPherson
Directed by Conor McPherson
A GWB Entertainment (and others) Production
Season: 6 January – 27 February. Bookings: www.theatreroyalsydney.com Duration: 2 hours 30 minutes (20-minute interval)
It’s astonishing to think that Bob Dylan unwittingly worked on creating the music and lyrics for Girl from the North Country for more than four decades. For most of his career, this vibrant and touching musical lay hidden within his many albums.
Finally, in 2013, the creative genius of writer/director Conor McPherson imagined the plot, story and characters which perfectly matched Dylan’s song legacy.
The result is a wonderful tale of hope and self-fulfilment from the despair of economic depression.
Girl from the North Country is set in a small lodging house during the winter of 1934 in the US State of Minnesota. The owner Nick is facing bankruptcy as the bank will soon be calling in his loans. His wife Elizabeth is suffering mental health issues which require constant care and her behaviour with the community and guests is confronting. Adopted daughter Marianne is African American and is expecting a baby soon. Son Gene is hot-tempered and struggles to keep his girlfriend Kate due to a lack of drive and commitment.
Old Mr Perry, a successful local shopkeeper, suggests matrimony to Marianne. This will give her a safe environment with a secure future and provide companionship for his remaining years. Not an easy choice for a young black woman in a white-dominated world.
Nick has another issue to contend with: his ongoing affair with a lodger named Mrs Neilsen. As Nick grapples with life’s challenges, he declares “Don’t ambush me with my own double standards.”
One night, two strangers attend the house seeking accommodation. The first is Marlowe, a fast-talking, quick-witted pastor who uses the fear and reward of God to sell bibles. However, the simplicity of Elizabeth cannot be tricked as she tells Marlowe “You can’t scratch this itch. I’ve been on the Prairie too long.”
The other is Joe Scott, former boxer and prison inmate. In different ways, they quickly complicate the lives of everyone else in the house and demonstrate the good and bad forces that are at play during uncertain times.
One other character is Dr Walker. He brings some sanity and reason into the picture and facilitates the story by narration.
McPherson’s characterisations are plausible and relatable. The cast have done well in bringing them to life. Standouts are Peter Kowitz as Nick, Lisa McCune as Elizabeth, Peter Carroll as Mr Perry, Grant Piro as Marlowe and Callum Francis as Joe Scott. There are some interesting turns in the story, so be sure to pay attention.
The set made full use of the great stage that the Theatre Royal has to offer. The chequerboard floor gave depth and clever use of drop-down screens and still photos of 1930 townscapes highlighted the paradoxes of the times. Overall direction, costumes, lighting and sound enhanced the audience experience.
The band was discreetly located on stage and some cast members made use of the drums, violin, guitar, double bass, piano and harmonica.
Which leads me to the music! Bob Dylan in the 1930’s is fantastic.
Only twenty-two of his songs are included and fit the story perfectly. The arranging, along with the choreography is less Dylan-folksy, more gospel and soul inspired. Notable songs were I went to see the Gypsy, Slow Train, Like a Rolling Stone, All along the Watchtower, Idiot Wind and Senor (Tales of Yankee Power).
From 2022, we can only imagine what life was like in the 1930’s. Girl from the North Country provides a glimpse of that era. With themes of despair, survival, racism, injustice and hope, the songs of Bob Dylan are right at home.
If you are a Dylan fan, this is a must-see. If you cannot stand Dylan, this is a go-see. The songs, in the context of this musical, work well.
It is a great show, excellent cast and outstanding production. A great night out!