Review: Girl From The North Country

Having not heard of this musical, other than it being based on Bob Dylan’s hits, I was excited to see a new show not really knowing what to expect; the excitement and anxiety of the unknown is always something that really excites me. And I loved the build-up before seeing Girl From The North Country, especially with all its rave reviews.

Bob Dylan’s songs are legendary, but they’ve never been heard in this format before. That is until now, because the smash-hit Broadway and West End play The Girl From The North Country has arrived in Cardiff to triumph.

Girl from the North Country is a gem that both theatre and music fans are sure to treasure.

Set in 1934 Duluth, Minnesota — Bob Dylan’s hometown — the story centres around the boarding house set up and run by Nick and Elizabeth Laine (played by Colin Connor and Frances McNamee respectively). Their two children, Gene Laine (Gregor Milne) and adopted Marianne Laine (Justina Kehinde) are two central characters too, and together the four portray the tensions and struggles of early dementia, an adopted black child in a white family in a white town, and running a business during a depression with the banks looming. We soon meet the family doctor, Dr Walker (Chris McHallem), long-term resident Mrs Neilsen (Maria Omakinwa) who Nick Laine has become involved with, and Mr Perry (Teddy Kempner), who attempts to seduce Marianne Laine in order to give her a better life. Finally we are introduced to some more transient characters, who are using the boarding house as a stepping stone on the journey to the rest of their life. Joe Scott (Joshua C. Jackson), an ex-convict, ex-boxer; travelling salesman Reverend Marlowe (Eli James); and the tragic Burke family (James Staddon, Rebecca Thornhill, and Ross Carswell).

Each character is given a voice and a story, and it is fascinating to watch these narratives play out and come together in this run-down boarding house, with the background of The Great Depression, the crash. The story is bleak — with all characters going for bust or tragedy — but the humour is there to carry everything through to the end, where we are all desperately hoping for a little good news for our characters.

The language and tone of some characters is at times uncomfortable. This is set, of course, in 1934 America, pre-civil rights movements, and it is a mark of how far society has come that the audience was decidedly quiet for some of the more difficult scenes, where the show tackles the subjects of racism, mental health and money.

For those of you who don’t know, Conor McPherson is an award-winning Irish playwright, whose work has garnered him international acclaim and two Laurence Olivier Awards. Hearing Dylan’s songs reimagined in this way by McPherson gave me a fresh understanding of his songs. The lyrics thoughtful, mystical, and at times haunting, and I will be adding some of my favourites to my Spotify playlist. Including show-stoppers such as ‘Like A Rolling Stone’, ‘Pressing On’, and ‘Forever Young’.

Girl From The North Country is a treat not only for Dylan fans, but is a must-see show for anyone fascinated by musical theatre.

Girl From The North Country is on at Wales Millennium Centre 6 – 10 December 2022. Tickets from £15.50 available online here or from the Wales Millennium Centre Box Office.

Image credits: Johan Persson