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Review: Girl from the North Country at the Theatre Royal

Review by Carly Fisher

Currently on Broadway, Girl from the North Country has simultaneously made its Sydney debut this week, marking the second time in just a matter of weeks that I’ve had the opportunity to visit the newly reopened Theatre Royal.

Set against the backdrop of the Depression era, the story takes place in a guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota in the winter of 1934. A large cast make up both the family that runs this place and all the passers through, long term borders, townsfolk and more and collectively, the way of the world is not lost on this group wherein each seems to be more downtrodden than the last.

Written by Conor McPherson, the show sells itself as a play with music, more so than a musical. Rather than advancing plot, the songs have been deliberately used almost as internal monologues for each character, a chance for an expression that they cannot have through the dialogue of the play but that gives us as the audience insight into the minds, dreams, fears and wonders of each of the characters.

For me, whilst I could appreciate the artistry of McPherson’s concept, the show did not excite. Whether it was that at times the story felt moulded to work around the song where an organic insert did not exist, or whether it was the jarring technical set that interrupted the flow, this show struggled to sustain my interest throughout its 2.5 hour run time.

What certainly kept me entertained was the talent on display - Zahra Newman, Callum Francis and Lisa McCune especially absolutely commanded that stage. Their stunning voices were matched by their strong character delivery and nuanced performances of extremely troubled characters. These three make the show. Excitingly too, their performances seemed such drastic departures from some of their recent work, particularly Francis who left Lola (Kinky Boots) way behind to take on the strong and complex Joe Scott.

The cast as a whole did not miss a note. For music fans, and especially for fans of Bob Dylan’s music, this show may be for you because musically, the cast is supreme. Special mentions here must be made of Blake Erickson’s stand out Act 2 vocal performance and Christina O’Neill’s consistently smooth vocals throughout the entire production.

So if these are the hits, what are the misses. There was an undeniable sense of chemistry missing between many of the performers - whilst they individually gave strong performances, many of the couples, and even parent/child relationships didn’t come across strained so much as under-developed…perhaps the cast did not have enough time behind the scenes to really get to know each other, I don’t know and can only speculate, but something was missing in the chemistry of the performers.

The lighting for me was a drastic miss - I understand wanting to keep the stage dark to represent the tone of the times, to highlight the financial hardships on this family and of course, to reflect their circumstances and attitudes, but this was really just dark to the point that areas of the stage were nearly impossible to see.

As mentioned too, the technologically driven set had no place for me in this 1934 guesthouse. There was again just an overwhelming sense of disconnect between the screens and the heavy woods and temporally appropriate house fixtures and furniture.

The live band, made up of Andrew Ross, Mark Harris, Cameron Henderson and Tracy Lynch, being featured on stage and utilised as pseudo-characters throughout the show was a great choice in my opinion! This is an area of the production that absolutely excelled and it was great to see the beautiful flow that was achieved by having these performers in costume and dotted throughout the stage.

The staging of many of the scenes was dynamic and the choice to ignore the traditional fourth wall in many instances made for beautiful profile imagery, and even great moments where the majority of a song or scene were performed to the back as well. McPherson’s directorial hand is strong and assured and its pays off in the unique and subtle moments of this production.

Whilst this wouldn’t be a show I would see again, I am very glad not to have missed it. It is a unique piece of theatre that I believe many will really enjoy - and speaking with other audience members, many did! It would be remiss to not take the opportunity to indulge in the fabulous performances offered by the cast. But overall, this show just simply didn’t do it for me.

Image Credit: Daniel Boud


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