Girl from the North Country

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

To many Robert Zimmerman, or Bob Dylan to use his stage name is the greatest songwriters of all time. With a career spanning six decades and spawning well over 40 albums, Dylan undoubtedly deserves his spot in the conversation for who is the GOAT. Either love his music or loathe it you can’t deny the volume and quality of his work.

With that in mind there is something of the inevitable about Dylan’s music, being turned into a musical; however, the result isn’t quite what you had in mind and that’s down to writer/director Conor McPherson (The Weir, Port Authority).

McPherson’s Girl from the North County takes place in Dylan’s home town of Duluth, Minnesota, some seven years before the singer was born. It’s 1934 and Duluth, like the rest of America, is still suffering from the impact of the Wall Street crash and the great depression.

Guest house proprietor, Nick Laine, (Colin Connor), has a great number of problems. Along with trying to keep the business afloat, he must care for his dementia riddled wife, Elizabeth (Frances McNamee), help his son, Gene (Gregor Milne) stay sober long enough to hold down a steady job, appease his mistress, the good natured Mrs Neilsen (Nichola MacEvilly), and see that his pregnant, adopted daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde) is wed to a local ageing business man, Mr Perry (Teddy Kempner), in a bid to secure a stable future for the young women.

In addition to his immediate family, the guest house must remain open in order to keep a roof over the head of the various hard-on-their-luck waifs and strays the lodgings has collected, including an ex-con boxer, a sinister priest, and a family with a troubled son. Under the watchful eye of the local GP and morphine addict, Dr Walker (Chris McHallem) their stories intertwine with one another leading to a fateful Thanksgiving dinner that will change their lives forever.

Those expecting a jukebox musical of Dylan’s greatest hits are in for a rude awakening. For sure there are some crowd pleasers, Hurricane, I Want You, and Like a Rolling Stone to name but a few, but the music chosen spans Dylan’s career up to 2012, with the song Duquesne Whistle. Whilst most musicals use their songs to drive the narrative along, the song choice here is to show a shared connection between the characters.

McPherson’s bleak script tackles some meaty subject matter, with dementia, mental illness, financial hardship, and racism (all so very relevant to this day), which in lesser hands could stray into melodrama, however, Girl From The North Country treads that line very carefully aided by a fantastic, hardworking ensemble cast, some powerful central performances, great song-and-dance routines, and a script punctured with a enough humour to keep it entertaining for all the right reasons.

Despite the rather grim setting and subject matter, the production has a great deal of energy to it, with the 20 strong cast frequently on stage together joining in backing vocals, playing various musical instruments, or dancing, whilst the production’s band The Howlin’ Winds expertly delve through Dylan’s back catalogue.

The production values are right out of the top draw, with Rae Smith’s scene and costume design, marrying perfectly with Mark Henderson’s lighting design and Simon Baker’s sound design to create an authentic dreary, dank claustrophobic setting with shoots of colour throughout. At times some of the set pieces resemble a painting in scale composition. The authenticity of the production helped by the use of instruments only around in the 1930’s.

My only real criticism is that at times there are too many narratives, and not enough time devoted to them, so some plot strands don’t quite reach a satisfying conclusion which is a little disappointing.

Girl From The North Country, is a satisfying night at the theatre, and one not just for fans of Dylan’s music. It’s a well-crafted piece of work anchored by some of the best songs of the last century.

Girl From The North Country is at the Lyric Theatre Lowry until 24th September 2022. Tickets available here.

The Last Ship

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Opening Night verdict ⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️⭐️

Reviewed by Matt Forrest

It’s rather fitting The Last Ship should wind up its UK tour in Salford: sure, they never built ships there, but the Lowry now stands on a site that up until 1972 was a working port. However soon like so many British industries the Salford/Manchester docks closed with 3000 people losing their jobs. So, it seems rather fitting then that for one last time (well on this tour at least), The Last Ship sets sail.

The story revolves around the return of local boy Gideon Fletcher, (Richard Fleeshman) who 17 years prior fled the town and joined the navy: he could see the writing was on the wall even back then for the shipyard and wanted to avoid the seemingly inevitable indoctrination into that way of life. However, on his return he now finds his town in potential ruin from the proposed closure of the ship yard. To make matter worse he receives a frosty reception from his old-flame Meg Dawson, (Frances McNamee) the girl he left behind. These two may be the focal point, but this is story with a bigger tale to tell: one of community, hope and defiance.

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The Last Ship is Sting’s love letter to a town he grew up in and a life he had once known. It fully acknowledges the pride and struggle that the people of Tyneside and other communities faced at the closure of not just the docks but coalmines and pits as well. Songs like “The Last Ship” the “Shipyard” swell with pride with the latter being a foot stamping statement of intent.

The cast are on fine form, Richard Fleeshman makes for engaging, charismatic lead, who at times doesn’t half sound like Sting when singing. Joe McGann and Penelope White as shipyard foreman Jackie White and his wife Peggy, make for a heart-warming, strong couple, who have each other’s and the rest of the communities backs at all times. The show is packed full of spirited and strong performances throughout that certainly do the source material full credit.

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The production design by 59 Productions is outstanding: one minute you’re in a dockyard the next a church complete with stain glass windows and eerie echo. Above we have the claustrophobic grey clouds, and magnificent tower cranes: the visuals take this production to another level, never ‘showy’ or flash, just simply stunning.

Anyone expecting an all singing, all dancing musical affair complete with ‘jazz-hands’ need look elsewhere, for this is production filled heart, soul and an unashamed political agenda. It calls out Margret Thatcher and the government of the day for the pain and suffering they caused so many at that time. The production highlights the mistakes of the past a warning to make sure these mistakes aren’t repeated in the future, especially regarding the NHS: It certainly has some something to say, and it says it loud and unashamedly proud.

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At the close of the production the cast took a well-earned standing ovation and gave us one last song: joined by Sting for an unannounced, unassuming blink and you’ll miss it cameo for the Last Ships final week of shows, judging by this performance lets hope there are plenty more voyages to come!

The Last Ship is at the Lowry until 7th July tickets available here.