The Girl from the North Country is a play with music currently on a twelve week run at the Noel Coward Theatre in London’s West End, having transferred from the Old Vic where it was originally staged. We went to see it on Saturday.
Conor McPherson, writer of The Weir and many other successful plays, has penned a bleak and beautiful tale set in Depression-era America. It is when times are hardest that people are most likely to fracture and break and ‘The Girl‘ centres on a disparate group of desperate people in a Duluth boarding house in 1934, including broken or near-breaking characters. These are all individuals who have lost something – their businesses, their liberty, basic decency, their homes, their loved ones or their minds.
There are shades of Steinbeck, most especially in the Depression-era setting and the huge man-child but also the febrile energy of O’Neill (Long Day’s Journey into Night is also running at the moment in the West End at another Delfont Mackintosh theatre). As in the O’Neill there is more than a nod to Greek drama, with a framing narrator/chorus, a tragic central figure in Nick Laine, the decent, good-hearted owner of the mortgaged boarding house who continues to pay for a neglectful childhood mistake, and a constricted timeframe (the bank will foreclose on the house within a set number of days). There are few happy endings to be found here, though there is humour, mainly arising naturally through character. There is meta-text e.g. Elizabeth chides husband Nick about his ‘lady in the attic’¹.
On the music, let me say that I am no Dylan expert, or even a particular fan. I recognise his iconic status but not a lot of his music, other than the very famous hits. So, aside from ‘Rolling Stone‘ and ‘Slow Train‘ the songs were unfamiliar to me – this is not, the Programme is anxious to point out, a ‘greatest hits’ musical in the manner of Mamma Mia. Played only on instruments available in the 1930s, a double bass, guitars, a violin, drums and harmonica, this serves to amplify the link to the American folk music tradition in which Dylan worked.
The songs are presented almost as a commentary on the action and motivation of the characters and are, largely, sung into 1930s ‘Shure’-type microphones facing the audience, though they sometimes began in unaccompanied echoing manner before the singer moved to the microphone. I wasn’t sure how this worked – was the singer lip-synching a recording, perhaps, at the beginning or through-out? Lack of familiarity with the songs meant that some of their meaning was lost for me as, inevitably, not all the lyrics were enunciated clearly. I was struck, however, by the variation in the quality of the lyrics I could hear, sometimes the words are plangently beautiful and absolutely perfect, sometimes banal and trite. ( Apologies Dylan fans, one could say the same of Wordsworth. )
The performances are uniformly excellent, one believes entirely in these people, even though some are close to archetypes. The singing and accompanying playing is excellent too. It is a sign of how McPherson has tapped so exactly into the psyche that even as one recognises the types and the tropes one genuinely does not know what is going to happen next, though, when it does, it seems foretold.
The play runs until 24th March. Ticket prices range from £15 to £109. It is well worth going to see. A final word for Claudia, the front of house ‘access’ lady, who made our visit so enjoyable and easy. If all Delfont Mackintosh theatres meet their legal responsibilities to facilitate disabled access so readily and with so much commitment they are to be congratulated.
¹The first Mrs Rochester perhaps, from Jane Eyre. Ciaran Hinds, who plays Nick also played Mr Rochester.