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Review: Girl from the North Country at Liverpool Empire ****1/2

Playwright Conor McPherson has spent his career placing disparate characters in isolated or bleak settings (bedsits, seaside suburbs, a rural Irish pub – and most recently in his adaptation of Chekhov’s Uncle Vanya, rural Russia), distilling and concentrating their hopes, fears, dreams and particularly their disappointments.

In Girl From the North Country, his masterly collaboration with troubadour Bob Dylan, we’re picked up and set down (Wizard of Oz tornado like) in Depression era Minnesota and at a ramshackle boarding house in Deluth – the city which just happens to be the real-life birthplace of a certain Robert Zimmerman.

Outside there’s a storm brewing, while inside, the house is run by Nick Laine (Colin Connor) and his troubled family.

Wife Elizabeth (brilliantly realised by Frances McNamee) has a kind of dementia which manifests itself in silences and sudden uninhibited outbursts, son Gene (Gregor Milne) is unmoored, and adopted Black daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde) is five months pregnant by a man she won’t name but still resisting the overtures of an old, widowed shoe mender (Teddy Kempner, bringing a heart-breaking poignancy to the role).

The boarding house, sitting in the shadow of foreclosure by the bank, is a place for the dispossessed, disappointed and desperate, for those on the road to somewhere…or nowhere; the widow patiently awaiting probate, the family whose adult son has a learning disability, the unexpected late-night travellers.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, not all of them are what they say they are.

Above: The cast of Girl From the North Country. Top: Justina Kehinde as Marianne. Photos by Johan Persson.

A family doctor acts as narrator, offering a prologue and sobering epilogue, while in between McPherson skilfully weaves a myriad individual stories, some in finer detail than others.

There are weighty topics at play here – racism, mental health, depression – but while McPherson doesn’t make light of them, he’s careful to introduce hints of possible happiness and moments of (albeit bleak) humour too.

Girl From the North Country isn’t so much a musical as a play suffused with music, be it snatches of melody or entire songs from Dylan’s extensive back catalogue.

Exquisitely delivered by both the large cast and a shifting four-piece band (The Howlin’ Winds), and on period instruments, the numbers are deftly used to get inside the characters’ heads, and never jar what is a free-flowing narrative which ranges across Rae Smith’s sparse set, atmospherically lit by Mark Henderson.

Melancholic yes, but also intensely moving, Girl From the North Country is surely an early contender for one of the best shows to be seen on a Liverpool stage this year.


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