Girl From The North Country at Theatre Royal Plymouth

Photo Courtesy of ATG Tickets

With music and lyrics from Bob Dylan; who’s regarded widely as one of the greatest song writers of all time, Girl From The North Country reimagines the traditional jukebox musical by breathing a new, soulful life into classics such as ‘Hurricane’ and ‘Like A Rolling Stone’. It’s certainly a unique directorial choice from the writer and director Conor McPherson, but it’s one that pays off by allowing a harmonious collaboration between the songs and the story.

The narrative is set in Duluth, Minnesota in the winter of 1934, some years before Dylan’s birth in 1941, with Duluth being Dylan’s birthplace. Historically, it’s the Great Depression and the audience are met with a group of individuals, gathered in a guesthouse owned by Nick (Graham Kent) and Elizabeth Laine (Frances McNamee). Whilst Nick seems to be a well-established businessman with many residents; he’s struggling on the inside due to the fact that Elizabeth has dementia, saying what she wants, when she wants, without hesitating about the consequences and he’s struggling to look after her, whilst also dealing with his own issues in terms of money.

The married duo are housing a broad range of society; both in terms of economic and racial differences. These residents include: a widow of whom Nick shows interest in, a married couple whose son has a learning disability, a wrongly imprisoned boxer and a bible salesman who’s described directly by McPherson as “representing God and the Devil”.

Joining the main cast alongside Nick and Elizabeth are their children, with Gene Laine (Gregor Milne) their son as a drunken aspiring writer and their adopted black daughter Marianne (Frankie Hart), heavily pregnant and unmarried. With the current financial circumstances and the entire family and guesthouse residents having their own unspoken truths; the songs of Dylan intertwine perfectly to tell a unique and heartfelt narrative.

The standout actress for me was most definitely Frances McNamee as Elizabeth Laine. Due to her dementia and sickness; she behaves rather strangely and with unpredictability with residents and her family, often coming out with remarks deemed inappropriate by those around her, and often cursing. With no regard to social conventions, she’s an unusual character that McNamee brought life into, especially during musical numbers such as ‘Like A Rolling Stone’ where she took the microphone and sung passionately out to the audience. She was always seen on stage making the most of life despite her condition, swirling around in her dresses with a tambourine to join the company’s band or attempting to chat to the residents under their roof; making her a delight to watch at all times.

The entire cast were truly remarkable, especially Frankie Hart as Marianne Laine and Graham Kent as Nick Laine-both of whom were understudies for opening night. The performances given by both talented individuals were fantastic, with exceptional vocals and performance skills from both Hart and Kent. I was delighted to see this duo in lead roles, giving them a chance to shine from outside of their ensemble roles; especially with this being Hart’s professional debut.

The collective cast was a joy to watch, coming together to form an unconventional family of tenants within the guesthouse. The cast also doubled up to create a live band on stage; which was a unique aspect of the production I appreciated, with all instruments being visual within the set, instead of being hidden away in a traditional orchestra pit.

Set design, created by Rae Smith is effortlessly brilliant. Using a collection of flats, flown in from the rigging; these simple illustrations helped bring the guesthouse and its surrounding areas to life. The set changes were seamless, with the family’s wooden dining table being a staple piece of the set as a central point of a community coming together, surrounded by homely aspects such as a fireplace and a piano (which was used often by the ensemble), giving a homely feeling to the guesthouse.

Many of these flats were semi-transparent, allowing you to see beyond the walls of the home; seeing characters who weren’t directly in the spotlight. This technique was most effectively used in ‘Slow Train’, which was sung by boxer Joe Scott (Joshua C Jackson) and the cast. Whilst Jackson’s strong vocals were at the forefront of this number; many of the girls from the ensemble supported this song, circling around the vintage microphone and leaning in to echo the lyrics, all of whom were hidden behind one of the flats, purely being able to be seen through it when illuminated. This effect was only achievable with the addition of a carefully crafted lighting design scheme, created by Mark Henderson.

Henderson’s lighting design was highly effective in a variation of ways, helping add to the narrative structure. Traditional spotlights were a key aspect within the production, often highlighting solo performers, so the audience would focus on them alone. This allowed for an intimate performance. This technique was also used when duos would perform, most notably in ‘I Want You’ and ‘Is Your Love in Vain?’, allowing both performers to interact with one another, whilst still keeping the sense of intimacy with the audience.

Another key aspect was created with the collaboration of Smith’s set design, with the main backdrop being backlit, allowing silhouettes of the company to be seen behind key performances. This technique added a deeper connection within the cast, with everyone on stage at once, as residents of the guesthouse, who are just as vital to the story. With their additional vocals; this added emotion to the musical numbers. The entire set and lighting design undeniably contributed to the soulful and personal storytelling of Girl From The North Country.

By pairing the lyrics of Bob Dylan together with the fantastic narrative written by Conor McPherson, a unique storyline is created, that’s positively going to be enjoyed by everyone who goes to see it. It’s truly an emotional and immensely enjoyable production, allowing a cast of creatives to shine in the spotlights. Whether an existing fan of Dylan’s songs or not, it’s the songs that drive this narrative and it’s an extremely impressive payoff.

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