Girl From the North Country, Old Vic

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In Duluth, Minnesota, ships, trains and buses come and go under a sweeping midwestern sky heavy with snow. It’s 1934, the height of the Great Depression. A desperate, drifting populace chase the shadows of their debtors and rumours of work in and out of the port city.

But in Mr and Mrs Laine’s flophouse perched on the freezing edge of Lake Superior, their lodgers have reached the end of the line. With empty pockets and bulging promises of rent to be paid next week, they float in and out of the gloomy parlour. Sometimes they stop to chat, others lurk in solitary corners. After group meals, perhaps the only time where their days have some sort of routine, they all dance to tinny music crackling from the wireless. This is the only joy they have, and they cling to it with a lover’s clasp.

The music they listen to, and that which seeps from them with aching melancholy, is by Bob Dylan – written decades after the Great Depression ended. Combined with Conor McPherson’s earthy, Celtic script of imagery-laden prose, Girl From the North Country is not a musical. More like a text-heavy piece of gig-theatre or a play with music, it’s a fragile time capsule of an era. Like the grounded but delicate characters represent the millions of faceless victims of the Depression, Girl From the North Country flickers like draughty candlelight. Its delicacy could start an inferno or burn out at any moment.

The gossamer plot, usually a problematic characteristic, is one of this show’s strengths as it serves to snapshot the mood of an entire nation. It loosely centres on the Laines – Nick is struggling to keep his creditors at bay, his son Gene is a wannabe-writer with no job and drink problem, and his wife Elizabeth is ‘sick’. Her illness may be dementia, or depression, some other non-specific mental illness. Or, she may have just stopped giving a fuck. Played with a childlike lack of restraint by the superb Shirley Henderson, she is looked after by their adopted black daughter, Marianne (Shelia Atim). Marianne is unwed and pregnant and at 19, Nick is hoping to marry her off despite her usefulness around the house.

The rest of the large, actor-muso cast each have their own story, agenda and not much stage time. Their most vulnerable moments are their songs, usually performed from front and centre with an old-fashioned stand mic. It’s in these moments where it feels more like a gig – the songs provide character insight rather than furthering the plot, and they are almost totally removed from any action that’s happening around them. Somehow, the device works, and it feels magical.

This is a special show. Delightfully genre-bending, it’s simultaneously timeless and of a defining moment in American history. It challenges our preconceptions of the marriage between music and theatre and uses text and music to indelibly spotlight a moment in time.

Girl From the North Country runs through 7 October.

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