REVIEW: Girl from the North Country at New Wimbledon Theatre ★★★★★

Girl from the North Country is a fairly new musical, using the songs of Bob Dylan. The musical premiered at the Old Vic in 2017 becoming an instant hit and transferred to the Noël Coward Theatre in the West End soon after. An Off-Broadway production was mounted in 2018 at the Public Theatre, original home of A Chorus Line, Fun Home, Passing Strange and Hamilton. Like these iconic musicals, the show soon transferred to Broadway opening in March 2020 at the Belasco Theatre. After taking a break due to the pandemic, the show then went on to play on Broadway until mid-2022 with seasons in Australia and New Zealand following. The first UK and Ireland tour was then mounted in May of 2022 bringing this sumptuous production back home to audiences in Old Blighty. After winning multiple awards, being praised by audiences and critics alike and having the Broadway production filmed for future release, Girl from the North Country is in it’s final leg of the tour and London audiences can once again bask in this beautiful, very special production as the show plays the New Wimbledon Theatre.

Celebrated playwright and Director Conor McPherson (The Weir, The Seafarer) boldly reimagines the legendary songs of Bob Dylan, like you’ve never heard them before. Girl from the North Country is set in 1934 in the heartland of America. We meet a group of wayward souls who cross paths in a time-weathered guesthouse. Standing at a turning point in their lives, they realize nothing is what it seems. But as they search for a future, and hide from the past, they find themselves facing unspoken truths about the present.

The show stars Maria Omakinwa (Mum in A Monster Calls, Mrs Cratchitt in A Christmas Carol, Zelma in TINA The Tina Turner Musical, Ada and Understudy Sylvia Pankhurst SYLVIA The Old Vic) as Mrs Neilsen, Ross Carswell (professional debut) as Elias Burke, Colin Connor (Spring Awakening, Macbeth, House of Pomegranates) as Nick Laine, Joshua C Jackson (Caliban, The Motherf**ker with the Hat and Icarus’s Wife, Showstoppers the Improvised Musical)  as Joe Scott, Eli James (One Man, Two Guvnors, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson) as Reverend Marlowe, Justina Kehinde (Best of Enemies, NHS The Musical, Around The World in 80s Days) as Marianne, Teddy Kempner (Witness for The Prosecution, Caroline or Change, Driving Miss Daisy, 42nd Street) as Mr Perry, Chris McHallem (Nora, Translations, The Crucible) as Dr Walker, Frances McNamee (Sting’s The Last Ship, A Christmas Carol, Big Fish The musical) as Elizabeth Laine, Gregor Milne (professional debut) as Gene Laine, Eve Norris (Be More Chill, Joseph and the Amazing Technicolour Dreamcoat, Bat Out Of Hell as Katherine Draper, James Staddon (A Christmas Carol, Goodnight Mr. Tom, Les Misérables, Miss Saigon) as Mr Burke and Rebecca Thornhill (Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray UK Tour, Tessie Tura/Mrs Cratchitt and Rose in Gypsy, Morticia in The Addams Family) as Mrs Burke. They’re joined by muti-talented ensemble including Frankie Hart (professional debut), Graham Kent (Kinky Boots, Made in Dagenham, Miss Saigon), Owen Lloyd (professional debut), Nichola MacEvilly (Philo, The Odd Couple, The Wake), Daniel Reid-Walters (God is on Heroin, Much Ado About Nothing, The Secret Love Life of Ophelia) and Neil Stewart (Mrs Henderson Presents, Jersey Boys, Spring Awakening)

Girl from the North Country is a true ensemble piece with Chris McHallem’s Dr Walker as the occasional narrator. Each character weaves in and out of the show, often playing out their stories in the background of other scenes, a testament to McPherson’s brilliant direction. The exceptionally strong cast work well together, intertwining their stories and often backing each other in semi-circles or groups around microphones. Standout performances include Maria Omakinwa’s Mrs Neilsen in her beautiful rendition of Went to See the Gypsy at the top of the show, a heart-breaking moment of the road not taken between Gregor Milne as Gene Laine and Eve Norris as Kate Draper in I Want You and Frances McNamee’s Elizabeth Laine leading a rousing end of act one take on Like A Rolling Stone. Act Two saw more memorable performances including the title song sang by the full ensemble, a defiant rendition of Hurricane lead by Joshua C Jackson’s Joe Scott and the uplifting Forever Young once again led by the incomparable Frances McNamee.

Instead of attempting to concoct a story to connect Dylan’s greatest hits, McPherson’s script is well-written, fraught with tension and beautifully constructed. Real care has been taken to include songs that comment on the story and characters. Lucy Hind’s movement direction punctuates the action offering emotionally driven rhythmic moments and simple but extremely effective choreography. Coupled with Simon Hale’s beautiful orchestrations and arrangements, Girl From The North Country doesn’t play as a jukebox musical. Instead, we’re gifted with a fresh and fiercely modern piece of theatre that’s part chamber musical and part ethereal theatrical experience. Brava!

Reviewed by Stuart James