The Girl From The North Country at New Wimbledon Theatre

Following a successful run at both the Old Vic and Noel Coward theatre, Conor McPherson’s show, the Girl From The North Country is now on tour around the UK. The show, set in the 1930’s follows a family that run a guesthouse in Minnesota. Struggling, not only with the Great Depression but with illness, race and unplanned pregnancies, Nick Laine, the head of the family battles with all of this head on. You also meet those passing through the guest house, a bible salesman, a notable boxer and a family with a mentally disabled son all struggling with their own journeys and reasons for being there. This is all set against the backdrop of Bob Dylan’s music.

The book for the Girl From The North Country is one that can be, at times, a little impenetrable. Whilst it succeeds in building up numerous characters and really drawing the audience in, the audience are left with many questions at the end and wondering if they are alone in not fully having understood the resolution each character had. The music, by Bob Dylan, rather than furthering any narrative simply was there to add to the mood. The music often focused on how the character is feeling and the haunting songs are delivered flawlessly by the cast and small but perfectly formed onstage band. Whilst most of the songs featured just one or two of the cast the rest of the cast provided rich backup harmonies adding a beautiful dimension to it. It is almost inaccurate to describe this show as a musical but more a play with music. The songs are often delivered from downstage with a microphone for the soloist and the rest of the ensemble huddled around another microphone. This helps ensure that the simplicity of it all speaks volumes rather than any complex choreography. Due to the fact that the music never drives the narrative forward the show also moves forward at a very relaxed pace, akin to the tempo of Bob Dylan’s music. Consequently the show felt like at times it struggled to hold my full attention.

This show is packed full of acting talent. Frances McNamee plays Elizabeth Laine, Nick’s wife with dementia. She flicks between moments of lucidness and others of childlike helplessness with many moments in between. McNamee plays this part utterly convincingly, even in the rare moments where the cast are all united in dance she looses not of Elizabeth’s physicality, making her mesmerising to watch throughout. Justina Kehinde takes on the role of Marianne Laine, the Laine’s adopted daughter who is pregnant out of wedlock. She flits between fierce when dealing with her potential elderly suitor to tender delivery of ‘Tight Connection to my Heart,’ but throughout remains enigmatic. I also saw the understudy for Nick Laine, Graham Kent and he was wonderful. The character was a barrage of contradictions, one moment worrying that Marieanne was out late and the next revealing that he cannot take care of her once she has had her baby. These constant contradictions made him wonderfully human and intriguing and despite a tough veneer your heart breaks for him when he reveals that just before Elizabeth’s illness set in, she told him she did not love him.

The set by Rae Smith is deceptively simple. Set in the Laine’s guest house throughout a sense of place is always present yet there are moments where the physical setting in that moment does not matter and clever imagery is used to underline this. This combined with an effective lighting design by Mark Henderson ensures that even in a huge theatre such as New Wimbledon the show always feels intimate, like you are peering into another families life.

Within The Girl From The North Country the acting, music and set are a masterclass in painting a beautiful picture, even if that picture is impenetrable due to the book being thought provoking, sometimes down to confusion rather than choice.

The Girl From The North Country is on at New Wimbledon Theatre until 18th March. You can find out more and buy tickets here.

If you like this review you might also like my review of The Commitments, Rock of Ages and The King and I.

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