Stage Door Review

Girl from the North Country

Sunday, October 6, 2019


written & directed by Conor McPherson with songs by Bob Dylan

David Mirvish, Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto

October 6, 2019-November 24, 2019

“Well, if you’re travelin’ in the north country fair

Where the winds hit heavy on the borderline

Remember me to one who lives there

She once was a true love of mine”

(from “Girl From The North Country” by Bob Dylan, 1963)

Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country with songs by Bob Dylan represents a new type of music theatre. Those who think that Girl must be a back catalogue musical for Dylan just as Mamma Mia! was for ABBA or We Will Rock You was for Queen should immediately cast that notion aside. Rather than a musical, Girl is a play with songs, all those songs happening to be by Dylan. What makes the show so new is that the performers sing these songs not as expressions of their character’s feelings but as external commentaries on the action. The cast, all of whom are exceptionally strong singers and actors, will leave you dazzled both with their performances in McPherson’s play and with their accounts of Dylans’s songs.

With Girl from the North Country, McPherson, author of such works as The Weir (1997) and Dublin Carol (2000), has written a play that would function perfectly well as a play without Dylan’s songs. The play is not about Dylan and makes no reference to his songs. The only only point of contact is that the action is set in Duluth, Minnesota, where Dylan was born.  The time, however, is 1934, nine years before Dylan was born.

The exposed stage of the theatre that you see as you enter immediately shows the dual, non-naturalistic nature of the work. Rae Smith’s set of the low-level boarding house where the action plays out includes a 1930s-style radio from which music of the period is playing and other worn furniture of the time. Yet, opposite the radio and armchair on stage right is a modern drum kit on stage left  Old-fashioned stand-up microphones are placed downstage and a band with its own drum kit can be glimpsed upstage left. Smith’s set thus already suggests that what we will see is a hybrid of theatre and concert.

During the course of the action, painted drops signal changes of location, but Smith has taken care that none of these drops cover the entire back wall. Some are only half sized, so that we are constantly aware of the artifice of the theatre.

The action starts when Dr. Walker (Adam James*) steps up to one of the mics and begins his role as narrator. Walker has been taking care of the Laine family for some time and knows their story. Nick (Ciarán Hinds) owns the guesthouse but is deeply in debt and the bank threatening to foreclose on the mortgage. His wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson) has early-onset dementia that causes swings between uncooperative withdrawal and uninhibited sensual outbursts. Their children, both adopted, were abandoned by former guests in their room. The older one is Gene (Emmanuel Kojo substituting for Sam Reid at the performance I attended) and Marianne (Sheila Atim).

Marianne is five months pregnant by a man whose identity she will not reveal. To help her, Nick tries to arrange a marriage between the 19-year-old Marianne and the elderly shoemaker Mr. Perry (Karl Johnson). Perry is willing but Marianne is not. Meanwhile, Gene is a would-be writer except that his alcoholism prevents him from working. Being dumped by his girlfriend Kate (Claudia Jolly) has only made things worse.

Given Elizabeth’s difficult mental state, Nick has not been able to resist the attentions of the house-guest Mrs. Neilsen (Debbie Kurup), a widow who is waiting for her husband’s will to clear probate. Once that happens she thinks she and Nick can run away together.

A second family also stays in the guesthouse whose fate parallels the Laines. Mr. Burke (David Ganly) lost his business and what money the family had in the Crash of 1929. Laura (Bronagh Gallagher), his wife, blames him for their reduced state, a situation made more difficult since their son Elias (Jack Shalloo) is mentally delayed.

Into this unhappy group enter two men seeking shelter on a stormy night – Marlowe (Finbar Lynch), a Bible salesman and self-proclaimed “reverend”, and Joe Scott (Arinzé Kene), a boxer released from prison and looking for a comeback. Things in the guesthouse had existed in an uneasy equilibrium before their arrival.  After it, the plans of all the inhabitants come crashing down.

The minimalist set along with Dr. Walker’s calm, compassionate narration alternating with scenes from the lives of the guesthouse’s denizens gives McPherson’s play the feel of Thornton Wilder’s Our Town (1939), except set in the desperate 1930s when Wilder wrote his play instead of the nostalgic period of 1901-13 when Wilder set it.

McPherson relates that it was Dylan’s management that contacted him asking if he would consider using Dylan’s songs in a theatre show. McPherson dismissed the idea until he came up with the 1930s guesthouse setting.  Using the earlier period McPherson says would “free the songs from the burden of relevance for our generation, and make them timeless”. The resulting show is not a musical, McPherson says, but “a conversation between the songs and the story”.

The 21 songs McPherson chose are not a collection of Dylan’s greatest hits although they do cover his output from the 1960s into the 2010s. Many, in fact, are quite obscure. What the songs and McPherson’s story have in common is their portrait of a society in the process of crumbling to dust and that society’s feelings of despair, loss and hopelessness. The way Dylan’s modern songs suit McPherson’s tale of the 1930s is so uncanny that they lend a sense of universality to the anti-nostalgic anti-Our Town that McPherson has created.

Major credit for the success of this anomalous hybrid of theatre and concert must go to Simon Hale, the orchestrator and arranger of the music. Hale has left some songs as solos, sometimes with or without choral backing; others he has transformed into duets and trios all the way up to songs for full chorus. If you were never a Dylan fan before, hearing such a wide variety of voices and voice combinations sing his songs will certainly change your mind.

McPherson uses the songs much as Brecht uses songs in his epic plays. At crucial moments performers steps out of character to sing a song as a general reflection on the situation they are in. By showing the performers in two different lights McPherson also uses the songs to indicate that since there is more to a given performer than we thought, there may also be more to the character he or she represents than we thought.

Several of the show’s most thrilling moments come when performers playing a character of limited outlook burst into a song with a universal perspective. This happens twice with actor Shirley Henderson, who is given two of the best-known Dylan songs in the show. When Henderson, whose dementia-ridden character Elizabeth, whose behaviour has been disturbing until then, breaks into “Like a Rolling Stone”, the effect is electrifying. The lyrics “How does it feel, To be on your own” suddenly acquire a new meaning as if Henderson the singer is commenting on Henderson as Elizabeth, who seems “without a home, / Like a complete unknown”. It’s as if our lack of sympathy for the disturbed character is called out as unkind. Besides this, the diminutive Henderson sings with such power and force it seems almost as if she has been possessed.

Something similar occurs in the second act after various disasters have befallen McPherson’s characters and Henderson begins “Forever Young”. The song gains in impact because it expresses the wishes of all the characters never to have reached this difficult point in their lives.  It also takes on a terrible irony when sung by the same performer who plays a woman suffering from dementia.

Elias, the parallel character to Elizabeth, not demented but mentally delayed, has said nothing comprehensible when Jack Shalloo, the actor who plays him suddenly sings “Duquesne Whistle” in a strong high tenor. The lyrics, “Listen to that Duquesne whistle blowing / Blowing like it's gonna sweep my world away” make us feel as if we suddenly have insight into the mind of the character whose thoughts have been most hidden from us. Likewise, Laura, Elias’s mother, played by Bronagh Gallagher, tries in vain to pretend she is not like all the other rooming house inmates and resents how her husband has ruined his family. But when she steps out of character to sing a hard-hitting rendition of “Sweetheart Like You”, it feels as if she is commenting directly on Laura’s own feelings, especially in the line “What's a sweetheart like you doing in a dump like this?”

Other great uses of Dylan’s songs are “I Want You” turned into a duet between Gene and Kate, before Kate leaves him and a heartbreaking account of “Tight Connection to My Heart” sung by Sheila Atim, whose character Marianne wants to marry for love, not money.

You leave Girl from the North Country amazed by the talent of the cast who are equally powerful as singers and as actors. You leave also invigorated by McPherson’s brilliant idea of using Dylan’s songs as a commentary on the universal aspects of McPherson’s own play so that you feel you have seen a strong new play by McPherson intertwined with an imaginative survey of Dylan’s songs, each enhancing the impact of the other. More traditional back catalogue musicals will follow, but it is hard to believe that any will be able to achieve such a tremendous combination of emotion and intellect as does Girl from the North Country.

©Christopher Hoile

Note: This is a review of the original production seen in London GBR, at the Noel Coward Theatre in January 2018.

*The cast of the 2019 remount in Toronto includes Daniel Bailey (Ensemble), Colin Bates (Gene Laine), Katie Brayben (Elizabeth Laine), Anna Jane Casey (Mrs. Burke), Nicholle Cherrie (Ensemble), David Ganly (Mr. Burke), Simon Gordon (Ensemble), Steffan Harri (Elias Burke), David Haydn (Ensemble), Rachel John (Mrs. Neilsen), Sidney Kean (Mr. Perry), Finbar Lynch (Reverend Marlowe), Donald Sage Mackay (Nick Laine), Gloria Obianyo (Marianne), Ferdy Roberts (Dr Walker), Wendy Somerville (Ensemble), Gemma Sutton (Katherine Draper), Shaq Taylor (Joe Scott), and Alan Vicary (Ensemble).

Photos: (from top) Cast of Girl from the North Country; Karl Johnson and Sheila Atim, © 2017 Manuel Harlan; Arinzé Kene and Bronagh Gallagher, © 2017 Geraint Lewis; Shirley Henderson © 2017 Manuel Harlan.

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