Girl From the North Country is a show that defies description. It sits somewhere between a play and a musical, a comedy and a tragedy, and a complete mess and quite enjoyable.
The story focuses on the plight of the Laine family who run a guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota during the Great Depression, as well as the lives of their guests. There are many storylines to follow: the Laine’s daughter is pregnant and seemingly in love with one of the new guests, the Father of the family is having an affair, a number of the guests are on the run from the law, and the list goes on. This is played out against a score featuring the music of Bob Dylan, including songs like ‘Make You Feel My Love,’ ‘Forever Young,’ and ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ played by a live band, The Howling Winds.
There is a lot to like about the show. I could not fault any aspect of its design, which combined with the music, help to give the show a consistent and complete atmosphere. This made moments when the bubble of the show is burst by out-of-place lighting or costume design choices much more impactful, to varying effects. The disco balls in ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ were perfect, while the staging of ‘Duquesne Whistle’ left me confused.
A number of the performances were also exemplary, the main example being Frances McNamee as Elizabeth Laine. Despite how busy the stage was at times, she was always the person I was watching. Her performance of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ is the undeniable highlight of the show. Further credit must go to Gregor Milne as Gene Laine, Justina Kehinde as Marianne Laine, and Eli James as Reverend Marlowe.
Despite these exemplary performances, it is fair to say that I had mixed feelings, stemming from two complaints. The first was that the show has far too many plotlines that never end up linking together. I spent the phone call to my Mum on the way back from the theatre remembering random events from the second act. (‘And then there was a gun?! Why was there a gun?!). I can only assume this was an artistic decision designed to show the complexities of life and to make the show more realistic, but I came out of the show feeling more confused than contemplative.
My second complaint is the quality of its representation of disability. Reminiscent of Sia’s film Music, the show presumes to know and authoritatively present what is happening in a disabled person’s head. Admittedly, that may have just been my interpretation. Undeniable, however, is the ableism within one of the plotlines, focused on a family visiting the guesthouse, composed of two parents and their disabled adult son. In the first act, it is revealed the reason the family is visiting is because the son ‘didn’t know his own strength’ and accidentally killed someone, so the family is now on the run from the law. This massively ableist trope did not fit in with the other plotlines. I thought that it could perhaps be a commentary on Lennie from Of Mice and Men, given both stories are set around the same time period; but this is not made clear.
Girl From the North Country is an aesthetically pleasing show and a triumph of music and design; but I am either too basic, or the show is too complicated, for me to be able to fully recommend it.
Edinburgh Playhouse, October 18th – October 22nd 2022
Image provided by author.