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Utilising the music and songs of Bob Dylan (from which the play takes its name), Girl from the North Country is set in the winter of 1934, as America is in the grip of the Great Depression.
At the heart of the story is the Laine family – proprietors of a rundown guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota – and the ragtag inhabitants in the rooms and lodgings of their house.
At the head of the household is Nick Laine, desperate to find a way to save his family from homelessness as the bank threatens to foreclose on his house.
Nick is also struggling to care for his wife, Elizabeth, who is suffering from a form of dementia that sees her shift between a near-catatonic state and childish outbursts; their children, Gene, and their adopted daughter, Marianne, are lost souls, too. Gene dreams of becoming a writer but instead spends much of his time inebriated; Marianne is five-months pregnant, the identity of the father unknown.
In addition, Nick has become involved with a widowed resident of the guest-house, and the two of them dream of a better future together once the money from her deceased husband’s will comes through.
Other inhabitants of the house include the Burkes, a family who have been pushed to the brink because of the crash, and two new arrivals; a self-styled reverend come bible salesman named Marlowe and Joe Scott, a down-on-his-luck boxer, whose arrival is a catalyst for change throughout the house.
McPherson’s script is beguiling. The characters are drawn as down-on-their-luck ne’er-do-wells, and from the outset there’s a crippling sense of fear and underlying tension that constantly threatens to bubble to the surface.
The use of Dylan’s songs is an inspired move, too. Their inclusion lends the piece a poetic poignancy and the writer’s music shines an unexpected light on the dramatic lives of the Laines and their lodgers.
Nineteen of Dylan’s songs are performed in total in the piece – including Sign On The Window, Like A Rolling Stone, Make You Feel My Love, Is Your Love In Vain?, Hurricane and Forever Young – and while such a rich tapestry of music would normally qualify such a show bonafide musical status, Girl from the North Country instead sits somewhere between a musical and a play.
It’s never showy like a big, ballsy Broadway musical, instead relying on a subtlety and understatement to make its point. It feels more like a play with music than anything else.
That said, the vocals of this dreamy cast are untouchable. In the lead roles, Ciaran Hinds and Shirley Henderson shine as Nick and Elizabeth, with the latter demonstrating she also has a serious set of pipes on her. Elsewhere, Sheila Atim (as Marianne) sings Bob Dylan’s songs even better than the man himself, and Jack Shalloo has a ball as Elias Burke as he blasts out Duquesne Whistle.
It’s not just the songs and orchestrations which are special here though. McPherson has managed to create a moody piece of theatre, evocative of the themes and sensibilities that dominated 1930s America: racism, abandonment, poverty, and depression.
Perhaps the overall feeling that the play leaves you with (aside from making you want to listen to Bob Dylan for a week) is best summed up by the story’s narrator, Dr Walker – played here by the always wonderful Adam James – who tells us that “pain comes in all kinds. Physical, spiritual. Indescribable.”
Girl from the North Country plays at the Noel Coward Theatre until 24 March 2018. Get tickets now via Ticketmaster.co.uk.