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Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY, Gielgud Theatre

Girl From the North CountryFollowing a critically acclaimed run at the Old Vic, with a subsequent West End transfer, Conor McPherson's Girl From The North Country has been remounted with an almost completely new cast. It had a short run at the Royal Alexandra Theatre in Toronto, and is now back in London for a limited engagement at the Gielgud Theatre prior to residencies of Upstart Crow and the hotly anticipated transfer of Broadway's To Kill A Mockingbird.

Girl From the North CountryLegendary singer-songwriter Bob Dylan was the starting point for the show; his music provides the soundtrack, and it is set in Duluth, the city of his birth. It's 1934 and America is in the grip of the Great Depression: unemployment is soaring, as are the suicide statistics, and there seems to be no end in sight. These harsh conditions bring together a group of outsiders in Nick Laine's boarding house, all running from something but trapped by circumstance.

Nick's son Gene is a frustrated writer unwilling to look to other work to make a living, his adopted daughter Marianne is pregnant and single, and his wife Elizabeth has succumbed to early onset dementia, becoming increasingly out of control. Throw a family trying to hide their son, a soon-to-be-wealthy widow, a mysterious preacher, and a former boxing champion into the mix, and it suddenly becomes more of a ticking time bomb than a safe haven.

This was one of my favourite shows of 2017/18, as all elements came together to create a quite magical experience that was greater than the sum of its parts - an emotional experience like no other. Unfortunately this time around it doesn't quite hit the spot. There's no concerted attempt at the (admittedly tricky) Minnesota accent from the Duluth residents, instead the cast opt for generic American - I'm not sure why a dialect coach wasn't employed to help yield the same results as the Old Vic's production.

Rae Smith's straightforward set design works well in conjunction with the whole tone of the show, though I'm not sure the projections really add anything to it. The lighting also seems a bit hit-and-miss, though it was hard to tell if it was a technical thing or simply down to actors fractionally missing their marks; the upshot is that it became difficult to discern people's faces at times.

One of the beauties of the original version of the show was its simplicity, subtlety, and the cast finding the natural amidst the supernatural elements to the writing. From the very first song it's clear that the show is getting the full musical theatre treatment, with performers constantly riffing and trying to make themselves stand out. Sometimes less is infinitely more.

Katie Brayben, whilst she does get some good laughs as Elizabeth, suggests more generic 'mad' than early onset dementia - instead of childlike she's grouchy, and a vital moment of lucidity just doesn't materialise. I'm not sure what possesses her to shout her way through "Like A Rolling Stone"; it clashes with the soft backing vocals and makes no sense in the context of the scene.

Gloria Obianyo is quiet and surly as Marianne, keen to live her own life but facing a difficult choice. It's in her singing that she can attempt to break free - Obianyo's vocal range seems a little restricted, so she's slightly less expressive than necessary at times, though she has a good understanding of the overall subtlety required. She also creates exquisite harmonies with Rachel John, who is soulful in her singing and delivers Mrs Neilsen's one-liners well.

For me, the standout performances come from Shaq Taylor and Finbar Lynch. The moment boxer Joe Scott and bible pedlar Reverend Marlowe arrive it really comes to life, and you find yourself waiting for one or both of them to return during the rest of the show. Lynch has just the right combination of creepiness and excellent comic timing, which morphs into something intensely menacing and intimidating in his final scene. Taylor is full of energy and a bit of a showman, and makes Joe into the most human of all the characters - by the end he's the only one you're really rooting for.

With its themes of austerity and lack of opportunity, Girl From The North Country is completely in tune with sentiments across the UK, but it's just a shame that the show has lost a bit of its soul since its triumphant debut. Still a worthwhile watch for some of the performances, as well as Simon Hale's gloriously folksy arrangements of Bob Dylan's back catalogue.

Girl From The North Country is at the Gielgud Theatre until 1 February 2020

Picture credit: Cylla von Tiedemann

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