With many jukebox musicals that have plonked themselves noisily in London’s theatreland, it’s usually helpful and ultimately more enjoyable to be familiar with the catalogue of work. Take We Will Rock You, as an example. The thrill of watching is to experience Queen’s iconic pop music as a concert of sorts while gleefully and perhaps manically shouting the lyrics at the stage and your mum who played the records whilst you were still wearing nappies. Such shows are unapologetically loud and completely enveloping. To experience Girl From The North Country in all its mesmerising quality is not to necessarily be familiar with Bob Dylan’s hefty catalogue, though you’re going to be hard pressed not to know some songs as they have been covered by Adele, The Rolling Stones, Cher and, er as an X Factor winner’s single. Similar to another ‘play with music’, Once and no more ‘juke box’ as that, it is unfair to plonk it into a ‘type’ of West End show when it has to be looked at in its own unique right.
Written and directed by Conor McPherson, Girl From The North Country takes us back to 1930s Depression-era America, which particularly highlights increased economic and racial differences. The setting is a guest house owned by Nick (Ciaran Hinds) and Elizabeth (the magnificent Shirley Henderson) who has dementia and the numerous characters – friends/ acquaintances alike who gradually gravitate there. Son, Gene (Sam Reid and later, understudy, Emmanuel Kojo) is a drunk and would be writer and adopted black daughter, Marianne (completely captivating Sheila Atim), is mysteriously pregnant.
McPherson has maintained Dylan’s trademark folky sound throughout with a first sliver of bluegrass edging you in as soon as the lights go down and setting the tone perfectly. The cast of 20 actors and musicians perform face out to the audience but not necessarily slipping out of the story or character. All have exquisitely unique voices and move with easy conviction, whilst never (fortunately) sounding like Dylan. One of the great things about this show is that none of the songs try to take the limelight or to give that moment. All are the moment. Even ‘Make You Feel My Love’, which is now widely known because of an Adele cover, doesn’t feature as a complete song, it is merely slipped in during another.
Some may discover that their ultimate experience is one of melancholy and whilst the story itself isn’t particularly hopeful, the collective experience of feeling this music and bearing witness to such exceptional performances is one that will undoubtedly transfix and bring much contentment. With this in mind, it could be very easy to focus less on the acting, which would be a darn shame. Henderson especially is fantastic as a woman slipping in and out of her mind and in turn, rigid conformity. She stares with what is likely glassy eyed incomprehension, yet could very well be the darkest moments of clarity and leaps around the stage like an energetic child with a voice that couldn’t possibly fit in that body. She transcends sexual expectations and certainly is the hero this story was never looking for. Atim’s performance of Marianne could easily be quietly timid and yet she rises up in what must seem an almost impossible setting, making us believe that she could have anything she wants. Her presence is staggering, as is her voice.
The story itself may divide opinion: some may be completely enraptured, whereas others may get lost in trying to keep up with the music and lyrics, as well as the various storylines that are occurring. What most definitely cannot be denied is how effortlessly this production has been created and portrayed with such subtly and power. You must try and catch this show during its too short run.
Girl From The North Country is booking at the Noel Coward theatre until March 24 2018
Photo: Tristram Kenton