The publicity for this show looks like just another jukebox musical – but under the skin this is a very different beast, and not just because its songs were originally written by Bob Dylan.
Set in 1930s Minnesota the story deals with the tough times of the Great Depression through the experiences of the owners of a cheap hotel, their family, and their guests.
While that is a reasonable plotting device for a song-driven musical what we actually get is more of a play with a great soundtrack, leveraging adaptations of decades of Dylan songs to add atmosphere.
The vignettes that make up the story are not especially deep, although there flashes of dialogue that wouldn’t seem out of place in an Albee play. We get a taste of the hardship and racial tensions that pervaded the era, and some personal stories of love and deception.
What really shines through here is the performances, from an exceptionally strong cast that can really act and really sing.
Frances McNamee stands out amongst a wealth of talent as Elizabeth Laine, the wife of guest house boss Nick (Colin Connor), now overtaken with dementia. Her crooked frame and unpredictable actions never let up, even doing tambourine and backing vocals duties for others songs. Her portrayal captures all the cruel humour of dementia, at turns devastatingly sharp and hopelessly devastated.
Connor himself is excellent as the weary flop house patriarch, trying to keep ahead of the bank and look after his drunkard son (played by Gregor Milne) and adopted, now pregnant, daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde).
Kehinde spars well with both mysterious boxer Joe Scott (Joshua C Jackson) and the fabulously uptight elderly shoemaker and unlikely suitor Mr Perry (Teddy Kempner).
There are great vocal performances from across the cast, but Maria Omakinwa especially impresses as widower Mrs Neilsen. On-stage band The Howlin’ Winds are perhaps underused, but it is a pleasure to have a focus on singing without it being drowned out by heavy accompaniment.
If you go expecting a full-on musical you will be disappointed; but go expecting a lightly-written play with a great soundtrack and fantastic performances and you’ll be in for a surprising and unusual treat.
- Girl From The North Country continues at Norwich Theatre Royal until Saturday, 4 March.