Girl from the North Country is set at the lakeside port of Duluth, Minnesota. But the sign may as well read: “Welcome to McPherson Country”.
Conor McPherson, that is: the Irish playwright, screenwriter and director whose pungent stage dramas (The Weir, The Seafarer and The Night Alive among them) have entranced theatregoers with their tribulations of the lonely, the defeated, those who failed to launch and those who have crash-landed.
There’s often a touch of magic in the air in a McPherson play, a misty bridge to old myths, and so it is with this jukebox musical, which McPherson has fashioned around a selection of songs written by Duluth’s most famous son, Bob Dylan. Its scale might be greater than his plays (a cast of 19 plus an on-stage band) but it is stamped with those same hallmarks.
It’s 1934. The Great Depression is cresting. Light swells softly on the interior of a ramshackle boarding house. Once a grand home of the mercantile class, it’s now a last chance hotel on the edge of foreclosure by the bank, a microcosm of the times.
Right now, however, it’s a family concern, managed by Nick Laine (played by Peter Kowitz), a tired yet tireless man who keeps watch over a floating population of guests while caring for his mentally unbalanced wife, Elizabeth (Lisa McCune).
Help comes in the form of Marianne (Zahra Newman), whom Nick and Elizabeth took in as a baby. Hinderance is made flesh in Nick’s biological son Gene (James Smith), a hard-drinking, would-be novelist unable to help himself, let alone others.
Characters and their various woes are piled higher than Tom Joad’s Hudson. Among the notables are the Burkes (Greg Stone and Helen Dallimore), a once prosperous middle-aged couple on the lam with Elias (Blake Erickson), their shambling, intermittently dangerous boy-man of a son. There’s also Mrs Neilson (Christina O’Neill), a widow waiting for her financial train to come in – and then to jump on it with Nick.
The most recent arrivals are Joe (Callum Francis), a freshly parolled convict and prizefighter and Marlowe (Grant Piro), an itinerant preacher-cum-crook.
Regular visitors to Nick’s dining table include the ancient Mr Perry (Peter Carroll), who has set his threadbare cap at Marianne, and Dr Walker (Terence Crawford), the local physician who dispenses morphine on demand (mostly to himself, before he got straight). Walker also serves as a narrator in what is a memory play with songs.
McPherson draws on the spectrum of Dylan’s back catalogue, numbers dating back to the title song (from 1963’s The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) to Duquesne Whistle from the 2012 album Tempest.
Due to the lyrical complexity of Dylan’s songs, they tend to operate as mood enhancers, with economical arrangements by Simon Hale for piano, fiddle, guitar and drums. On the few occasions when they are used in a more traditional jukebox manner – to advance character and/or plot, as when Joe sings Hurricane – it seems oddly clumsy.
Ensemble-sung numbers often take place around old microphones, which are walked on and off as if in some old timey radio variety hour. When Dr Walker takes to the mic it’s hard not to be reminded of that other Minnesota son Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Companion.
Realised by associate director Kate Budgen, movement director Lucy Hind and resident director Corey McMahon, McPherson’s production is sparely yet seductively staged. Mark Henderson’s eloquent use of low light combines with Rae Smith’s set and costumes to suggest past lives and better times as well as present peril. Furniture and walls are whisked away as if by ill winds, amplifying the sense that this house is too fragile to ever really be a home.
Early reviews of this production, which opened at the beginning of the Sydney festival in January, pointed to some under-rehearsal and fitful chemistry. Weeks on, the production has clearly found its groove. Every moment is rendered precisely and the chemistry is at very least persuasive.
McCune is exceptional as the untethered Elizabeth. Her singing is this production’s musical highlight. Newman and Francis are in superb voice, too, the latter performing his numbers with a touch of Sam Cook cool. Erickson demonstrates a powerful set of pipes late in the piece as the tragic Elias finds his voice. And regardless of whether you think the song choice and the moment truly cohere, I Want You, sung by Smith Nick and Elizabeth Hay (who plays Gene’s sidelined girlfriend, Katherine) is made to shimmer.
Covid-19 hit Girl from the North Country hard during the Sydney festival. Spooked by Omicron, and perhaps in solidarity with the boycott, audiences have been reluctant to come out and experience it. This performance, a Sunday matinee, was played to a 50% house. But the show still manages to reach out with a message that happiness is best grasped in the present – however difficult that present may be – rather than hoped for down the track.
Girl from the North Country plays the Theatre Royal in Sydney until 19 March, before heading to Adelaide and Melbourne.
At the Theatre Royal, mask-wearing for patrons over 12 is mandatory, although patrons may take them off to eat and drink. A reduced number of foyer bars are open, and lines are socially distanced. Double-vaccination status is checked at the door. The show runs two hours and 30 minutes, including an interval, and is in an indoor theatre. In line with current state regulations, the venue is able to seat patrons at 100% capacity