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From the Midwest to the West End, Dylan's songs shine in 'Girl from the North Country'

Shirley Henderson as Elizabeth Laine in Conor McPherson's 'Girl from the North Country'
Shirley Henderson as Elizabeth Laine in Conor McPherson's 'Girl from the North Country'Manuel Harlan

by Eugenia Sestini

January 11, 2018

Following its successful debut at The Old Vic, the triumphant production of Girl from the North Country has transferred to London's West End, where the 21-strong cast of actors and musicians will keep on bringing to life Bob Dylan's songs for a further 12 weeks, at the Noël Coward Theatre.

Written and directed by Irish playwright Conor McPherson (The Weir, Shining City), Girl from the North Country takes us to Dylan's hometown of Duluth in the winter of 1934, during the Great Depression.

That's where we meet Nick Laine, who can't make ends meet as the proprietor of a run-down guesthouse where everyone seems to be borrowing something, or someone. Knee-deep in debt, Nick is constantly agitated, struggling to look after his volatile wife, Elizabeth, who has early-onset dementia. Their son, Gene, drinks away the pain of not finding work as a writer, and their adopted African American daughter, Marianne, is expecting a baby whose father is a mystery. "Pain comes in all kinds. Physical, spiritual. Indescribable," explains Dr. Walker, the physician who looks after Elizabeth and narrates the story, too.

In the middle of the night, two men come looking for shelter from the icy wind outside — one is an eager Bible salesman, Reverend Marlowe; the other is a former boxer just released from jail, wrongly accused because of the color of his skin.

Afraid of foreclosure and desperate to scrounge up a dime, the Laines take these men in, but the ground they are standing on is already shaking, and we wonder how many more secrets the guesthouse can keep, where the boarders already include the Burke family and Mrs. Nielsen, Nick's love interest.

This production is a triumph due in part to its versatile, multitalented international cast. Shirley Henderson (from the Harry Potter, Bridget Jones and Trainspotting films) plays Elizabeth, a vulnerable woman characterized by periods of withdrawal followed by childlike outbursts of uncomfortable truth-telling. She often seems invisible, as Nick would prefer her to be. Nick is portrayed by Ciarán Hinds (who has done everything from Shakespeare to Disney's Frozen, with Game of Thrones in between). Sheila Atim shines as Marianne, the expectant mother who refuses to leave the family home for the prosperous gray-haired shoe mender her father wants her to marry. Having grown up at the time of the Duluth lynchings, Marianne has been home-schooled for her own safety, the Civil Rights Movement still 20 years down the road. Atim steals the show with her tender and powerful rendition of "Tight Connection to my Heart," and we can only hope somebody will see her love while we search for tissues. Arinzé Kene (boxer Joe Scott), Debbie Kurup (Mrs. Nielsen) and Jack Shalloo (Elias Burke) dazzle with their singing talent, and Bronagh Gallagher (Mrs. Burke) sings beautifully — as she did in The Commitments film — while she plays the drums.

McPherson has chosen 20 of Bob Dylan's songs, drawn from across the artist's back catalogue, from "Girl from The North Country" (1963) to "Duquesne Whistle" (2012). Solely using instruments that existed in the 1930s, the songs have been reinvented and rearranged by Simon Hale's magic, giving us a chance to rediscover these classics and to appreciate Dylan's gift as a storyteller. These are timeless songs that are organically built into the 1930s setting of the play and still resonate with us today. They provide the characters with a new voice, a chance to speak to the audience and feel empowered, especially when accompanied by the gospel-like backup singers.

Unlike other shows, the story does not revolve around the songs, nor do the lyrics dictate the narrative; the two seem to be woven together to create a richer sense of time and place, they engage the audience and transport them to a faraway land. It is a time of uncertainty and inequality, of anxiety and loss. We sense the loneliness of the owners and guests at the boarding house. This is no cozy B&B — despite their physical proximity, the inhabitants are together but alone, wanting what they can't have and having what they don't want. Ultimately, they are in the same boat, fractured, standing on one leg, but refusing to give up. They carry on singing.

Throughout the show, the lighting is warm and dim, coming mostly through lampshades across the stage. The atmosphere is raw and intimate: pots and pans on the table and no ornaments or embellishing; we see the snow in the backdrop, feel the hardship of winter, and keep hoping the sun will come rising over that Minnesota harbor town. Much like Dylan's lyrics, the play does not provide answers, only stories for us to ponder, and to sing about.

Girl from the North Country runs until March 24 at the Noël Coward Theatre in London. There is anticipation the production will next go to New York, but there has been no announcement at the time of this publication.

Eugenia Sestini lives in London, where she teaches languages and works on the perfect ending for her debut novel.


Girl from the North Country - official site

Girl from the North Country - Noël Coward Theatre site