REVIEW: Girl From The North Country (Gielgud Theatre) ★★★★★
Following on from its recent sold-out London run at the Old Vic, and then the Noel Coward Theatre, Girl From The North Country returns to the West End’s Gielgud Theatre for a limited season.
Four years ago, Director Conor McPherson was approached, and asked if he’d be interested in using music maestro Bob Dylan’s songs in a theatre production. Although his background wasn’t in writing musicals, McPherson soon had a vision of how he could take Dylan’s songs, and ensure they remained timeless, whilst incorporating a story set before the musician’s birth. Girl From The North Country was born.
The focus throughout is on two main topics: racial discrimination in 1930s USA, and dementia. The play takes place in Nick and Elizabeth’s guesthouse in Minnesota. Nick is fighting to keep the guesthouse, his finances, and his life afloat, alongside supporting his wife in her battle with dementia. Their son, Gene, is a drunken but hopeful writer, and their adopted black daughter, Marianne, is pregnant, but not in a relationship. Guests at the guesthouse include a widow (Rachel John), with whom Nick is romantically involved, and a boxer (Shaq Taylor) who was imprisoned unjustly.
In an emotionally and physically exhausting role, Katie Brayben does an outstanding job at characterising Elizabeth, and portraying her suffering in a way that combines the pain of dementia with the idea that the condition affords complete freedom, and the ability to speak the truth with no holds barred.
Rachel John, who recently starred in The Bodyguard and Hamilton, lends her silky smooth voice to the role of Mrs Neilson – Nick’s secret love interest. The balance between supporting Elizabeth whilst she suffers with dementia, and her constant internal battle around loving a married man, is portrayed with both sensitivity and passion. Although we wouldn’t expect anything less from John.
One of the most exciting revelations from the cast was their instrumental talent alongside the vocals. Many of the ensemble doubled as musicians, with both Anna-Jane Casey and David Ganly expertly playing the drums whilst singing. The live band added an extra layer to the production, and throughout the play were on stage with the main cast, performing as one.
It’s impossible to watch Girl From The North Country without mentioning Gloria Obianyo (Marianne). Not only did she often steal the show, but she captivated – almost haunted – the audience, with her vocal range and ability. The young actress has already starred in Fanny & Alexander and Jesus Christ Superstar, as well as wowing TV audiences in Good Omens. Obianyo is most certainly one to watch for the future.
Reviewed by Luisa Gottardo
Photo: Cylla von Tiedemann
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