Wednesday 8 March 2023

Girl from the North Country

 Curve, Leicester

7th March, 2023

Back here – some of the guests we’ll meet along the way

Girl from the North Country, Conor McPherson’s play with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, premiered at the Old Vic in 2017 and has since gone to successful runs in the West End and on Broadway. A play with music, a jukebox musical(?!), a series of vignettes linked by music, Girl from the North Country defies conventional classification. McPherson’s show is a genre all in itself. It’s both a tableau of hardships from a Minnesota guesthouse in the winter of 1934, and haunting elegy to the pains, injustices, losses and (un)fulfilled hopes of the human spirit. It’s McPherson’s specific evocation of time and place running simultaneously with the timeless and universal soul of Dylan’s folk music which makes it a classic. Poised between transience and permanence, the personal and the universal, time and space, Girl from the North Country epitomises the unique adversity of the human soul.

Set in a Minnesota boarding house during the depression we are shown both arching and intimate insights into the lives of its residents. Nick Laine (Colin Connor), who runs the boarding house, struggles with mounting debts and looking after his wife, Elizabeth (played at this performance by Nichola MacEvilly), who suffers from dementia. Their adopted daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde) is pregnant but the father is nowhere to be seen. House regulars include the Burkes, perhaps on the run from a tragic past, and Nick’s lover Mrs Neilsen. When two strangers appear in the dead of night the residents of this small community face monumental decisions regarding love, life, death and fortune.

The play is not particularly plot-led, McPherson instead choosing to collate a series of interlinking scenes united by the communal setting and the themes of transience, regret and hope, all interspersed with Dylan’s elucidating music. These vignettes (postcards if you will, heightened by the flat images in parts of Rae Smith’s design), far from being sketchy, get under the skin. We soon realise that it is often what is left unsaid, the stories that are untold, that are so evocative of the human experience. The play is a series of snapshots and achingly insightful epiphanies, whether it be Elizabeth’s moments of lucidity in which she offers nuggets of wisdom amid the banalities, or the varying realisations that they cannot carry on living the way they do. And McPherson is perhaps mining his own personal struggles through the character of Gene, Nick and Elizabeth’s son, who aspires to be a writer but struggles with alcoholism. For better or worse, by the end every character has been touched by change.

Simon Hale’s haunting orchestrations of Dylan’s classics blend the songs together seamlessly, and the arrangements and incorporation of harmonies highlight not only what a masterful poet Dylan is, but how melodic and instinctive his music is too. Dylan’s music strikes a chord with so many because we all feel he speaks to us, for us, encapsulating what is so often thought of as inexpressible with a simplicity that is able to articulate the vagaries of life in a strikingly obvious manner. The struggles of the boarding house residents may be played out upon the backdrop of the great depression, yet the sentiment is eternal. A particular highlight is the heartstopping intimacy and understated stillness of Gene’s duet ‘I Want You’, which captures all the tragedy and yearning mournfulness of the deadbeat writer’s inertia.

There are surely echoes to McPherson’s other work including the presence of ghosts like in his play Shining City (2004). The ephemeral lives of characters whose stories are brought together by a central place reminded me of The Weir (1997). And the dark corners of Smith’s set reminded me of her design for McPherson’s adaptation of Uncle Vanya in the West End in 2020, emphasised here by Mark Henderson’s subtle lighting. Performed by a remarkable cast and band and always leaving us wanting more, Girl from the North Country is a truly beguiling and indefinable piece of theatre.

Girl from the North Country runs at Curve, Leicester until 11th March and then plays at New Wimbledon Theatre until 18th March. For more information please visit

The company from Girl from the North Country. Credit: Johan Persson

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