Girl from the North Country

Review: Girl from the North Country, New Wimbledon Theatre

Review: Girl from the North Country, New Wimbledon Theatre

Jenny Booth reviews “Conor McPherson’s slow-burning play”


Writer and director Conor McPherson’s slow-burning play is a moody meditation on how people cope with adversity. Set in a hardscrabble town in the northern US during the Depression era, it slowly gathers an ill-assorted group of residents under the roof of a shabby boarding house, bringing them into collision at a Thanksgiving 1934 party at a moment when everyone’s life is reaching a critical point. From a morphine-taking doctor to a wolfish seller of Bibles, each one has layers of secrets. With the exception of the boarding house keeper’s wife, Elizabeth (Frances McNamee), who seems demented but tells the truth like the Fool in a Shakespeare play, the audience must be patient to catch glimpses of the characters’ true motives and feelings. The action moves in what feels at first like a leisurely meander, but by the end as the characters are accelerating apart the pace is swift and relentless.

The girl of the title is Marianne, Nick and Elizabeth’s black adoptive daughter, luminously played by Justina Kehinde. Marianne is pregnant and will not name the baby’s father, but with her quick tongue and strong character the audience rarely sees her as a victim. She must make wise choices to find a future for herself and her baby, telling the good heart from the predator. Compared to the women, most of the male characters appear weak and flawed – Nick (ably played by understudy Graham Kent) is buckling under the strain of an impossible situation, while Marianne’s adoptive brother Gene (Gregor Milne) is a drunken coward. Joseph (Joshua C Jackson), a former boxer who was wrongly imprisoned, is the exception with a noble dignity that McPherson has almost overdone. Not all the details of every character were successfully transmitted to the audience, partly due to audibility and the Minnesota accents, so some of the nuances of the more minor characters were lost.

Girl from the North Country is set apart from the rest of McPherson’s award-winning repertoire by the way it combines with Bob Dylan’s music. The play is shot through with the lyrical fatalism of Dylan’s back catalogue – most of it 1963-83, bleak, stoic but intensely human. The songs are not woven into the action, but counterpoint it in a way that makes the play’s situations and ideas feel timeless. Dylan himself was born in 1941 in Duluth, Minnesota, where the action is set, and whether or not the play resembles any biographical events it gives the impression that the world of his music has sprung to life. It’s a tough world of a bygone day, where life forces harsh choices and enormous burdens have to be borne. Impressionistic sets are glimpsed through yellowy, crepuscular lighting like the glow of oil lamps, adding to the play’s elegiac tone.

New Wimbledon Theatre, until 18 March

Image by Johan Persson