Review: Why Girl from the North Country at Milton Keynes Theatre didn't leave me as excited as the rest of the audience

Alan Wooding gets to hear those 'Zimmerman Blues' once more in this songbook flashback from his youth
The company of Girl From the North County (photo: Johan Persson)The company of Girl From the North County (photo: Johan Persson)
The company of Girl From the North County (photo: Johan Persson)

As a teenager in the 1960s, listening to songs like Blowing in the Wind and The Times They Are a-Changin' was regarded as cool even though Bob Dylan's voice wasn't everyone's cup of tea.

When Irish playwright Conor McPherson came up with Girl From The North Country featuring Dylan's back catalogue, I was keen to see what the man behind The Weir and The Seafarer had done so right which allowed the show to collect so many theatrical awards.

Set in a grim rundown 1930s guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota – Dylan’s birthplace – America's great depression was in full swing and we meet an odd mix of characters trying to deal with subjects like adultery, dementia, racism and abject poverty. But unfortunately for me, Girl From The North Country hardly lifted itself above all the doom and gloom.

Frances McNamee as Elizabeth Laine in Girl From The North Country (photo: Johan Persson)Frances McNamee as Elizabeth Laine in Girl From The North Country (photo: Johan Persson)
Frances McNamee as Elizabeth Laine in Girl From The North Country (photo: Johan Persson)

With a 20-strong cast, plus an on-stage band, many among the audience would have heard Dylan's reworked lyrics for the first time, numbers which included Like a Rolling Stone, Make You Feel My Love, Jokerman, Hurricane, Tight Connection To My Heart and my show favourites, Idiot Wind and Forever Young.

Around the time of America's 1934 Thanksgiving period, Chris McHallem as Dr Walker acts as a narrator and sets the scene while guesthouse host Nick Laine (Graham Kent) clearly has a roving eye as his wife Elizabeth (Frances McNamee) suffers from dementia and she acts up whenever anyone tries to help her. However Elizabeth retains a sense of mischief and unpredictability while she certainly has a wonderful voice.

Mrs Neilson (Keisha Amponsa Banson) is a penniless guesthouse resident who expects to inherit $20,000 and she promises her lover Nick that they'll run off and buy a hotel together – but that all comes to nothing!

The Laines’ drunken son Gene (Gregor Milne) challenges boxer Joe Scott (Joshua Jackson) to a fight while his pregnant sister Marianne (Justina Kehinde) tries to fight off the attentions of the ageing Mr Perry (Teddy Kempner).

Bible salesman Reverend Marlowe (Eli James) certainly isn't all that he seems while James Staddon and Rebecca Thornhill are the prickly Mr and Mrs Burke whose deranged son Elias (Ross Carswell) disappears after a fishing trip.

There's plenty of singing and dancing in Girl from the North Country but it's a play with musical interludes rather than a traditional musical. That said, there are certainly some fine individual voices backed by the four-piece Howlin' Winds band, but sadly Girl From The North Country didn't leave me half as excited as it seems to most of the audience who were on their feet with prolonged applause at the finale.

There's certainly an unintended link between the USA of the 1930s and the present UK situation – what with the cost of living crisis following the Covid pandemic – and while it sounds depressing, the actors all showed plenty of emotion even though Girl from the North Country left myself and my wife somewhat disappointed.

Girl From The North Country plays Milton Keynes Theatre until Saturday 19 November with tickets from the Box Office on 0844 871 7652 or online at www.atgtickets.com/MiltonKeynes (booking fees apply).