Newcastle Theatre Royal
Until Saturday 1 October 2022
The musical, using the songs of Bob Dylan, with a story by Conor McPherson, has arrived in Newcastle this week. With approval from the songwriter himself, the show has been popular on both sides of the Atlantic.
The story is set in the winter of 1934 in a guest house in Duluth, Minnesota, a city on the shores of Lake Superior. The local medical man, Dr. Walker (Chris McHallem), introduces the cast. The man running the guest house is Nick Laine (Colin Connor) who is having a run of bad luck. Not only is the bank about to repossess the business, his wife Elizabeth (Frances McNamee) is suffering from dementia which means that she needs care. Their adopted daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde) is expecting a child and their son Gene (Gregor Milne) would rather be drunk and go through the motions of being a writer than get a proper job.
Some of the guests are also introduced, with Mrs Neilson (performed tonight by understudy Nichola MacEvilly) coming to early prominence as she has started a relationship with Nick whilst waiting for her probate money to come through. In the early hours of the morning two more guests arrive looking for a room claiming to have just met on their way there: Bible salesman cum Reverend Marlowe (performed by another understudy, Neil Stewart) and boxer Joe Scott (Joshua C Jackson). The musical then studies how the various groups interact in the run up to Thanksgiving.
As someone who has never asked Alexa to play any Bob Dylan music I came to this show open-minded. I had heard positive things about it on the grapevine and I love to check out new musicals. I am pleased to say that the show relies heavily on a very strong cast who can deliver characters that you care about. The leads all have the ability to sing well too. The poetic nature of Dylan's lyrics hang over the show, as the live band, who are on stage accompany the singers. The four piece band under musical director Andrew Corcoran add a magical touch to the songs. For the second week in a row I am struck by a show that doesn't go for over the top amplification - rather the natural acoustics are allowed to fill the room.
The other similarity with last week's show is how the tale holds a mirror to the racism of the time. Unpleasant listening, but it was an aspect of life in the US back then (and still is, by all accounts).
I was struck by two statements made by the audience that I met in the interval. The guy behind me loudly telling his mate that he didn't have a clue where the story was going had me thinking at the start. Another audience member that I knew at the end of the interval then hit the nail on the head - "this is Arthur Miller set to music". Bingo - that's right!
The music is really well delivered but it doesn't forward the plot particularly well. The story is well acted and full of parallels with the modern day but it is somewhat depressing rather than entertaining. The humour side of the human condition is in short supply.
I can see why it got the really positive reviews. I really can. But, if I am to be honest, I cannot see myself actively wanting to see it again. Perhaps after the past couple of weeks I just wanted to be cheered up more? I look forward to reading comments from others about it.
Review: Stephen Oliver
Girl From The North Country plays at Newcastle Theatre Royal from Monday 26 September – Saturday 1 October 2022. Tickets are priced from £15.00 and can be purchased at www.theatreroyal.co.uk or from the Theatre Royal Box Office on 0191 232 7010.