REVIEW – Girl From the North Country at Birmingham’s Alexandra is well worth a visit

CONOR McPherson wrote and directed this taut, dystopian story against a backdrop of wondrously haunting numbers from Bob Dylan.

Let’s face it, outside of ‘Mr Tambourine Man’, Dylan hasn’t exactly penned a catalogue of cheer over the years and so that makes it a perfect fit.

‘Girl’ is no jukebox musical nor indeed is it a musical where the audience is encouraged to applaud after every number.

Not a jazz hand in sight – rather at the end of each number an actor moves the story swiftly on, ensuring the audience saves their appreciation until the interval and the walkdown.

Set in the Great Depression ‘Girl’ takes place in the year of 1934 in a rundown guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota – which incidentally is where Bob Dylan was born.

There is a large company comprising a cacophony of characters and storylines with a common theme of despair.

They bicker, insult, fight, eat, drink and sing taking their cues from a note on the honky-tonk or a rap of  a drumstick on the snare drum.

The master of the house who is desperately trying to avoid bankruptcy through not being too choosy of his clientele is Nick, an all embracing outing from Colin Connor.

Frances McNamee is mesmerising as Nick’s dementia afflicted wife Elizabeth.

She also has the most awesome of singing voices.

Nick adds to his monetary troubles by carrying on an affair with one of his boarders, the newly widowed

Mrs Nielson – another outstanding all round performance from Maria Omakinwa.

Gregor Milne and Justina Kehinde convince as their equally troubled children Gene and Marianne.

Gene is a drunken, about to be dumped by his girlfriend, would-be writer and Marianne, who was adopted, is coloured and five months pregnant by a man she won’t name.

The grey chink of light, in an ink black sky being a proposition of marriage from a shopkeeper old enough to be her grandfather (Teddy Kempner).

Then we have a preacher who has lost his mojo, a boxer/ convict on the run plus various other folk whom the depression has beaten their despair into submission and capitulation.

Occasionally giving us a clue where we are in this complex discordance is Chris McHallem as Dr Walker, our narrator with his own fateful back-story.

Shout outs to musical director Andrew Corcoran for haunting arrangements to match every mood and Lucy Hind for movement that perfectly fits each character and molds to form time and place set pieces and Mark Henderson for moody and broody lighting design.

Rae Smith has designed a set which works like more of a cast member than an inanimate performing space.

The sad and creaking furnishings embrace life in the Great Depression.

The gloom is counterbalanced occasionally by landscapes on screens appearing like portals on a timeless world outside the stifling guest house.

So disjointed is McPherson’s epic that I admit to becoming a little lost with the complexity at times, but there is so much to revel in from richness of text to music to performance to song to dance that it didn’t really matter.

‘Girl From The North Country’ is a one off original that has a voice all of its own.

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Review by Euan Rose

Euan Rose reviews