Girl From the North Country @ Noël Coward Theatre: How Does it Feel?

I’m sure I’ve written a version of this paragraph before, but it’s true so I’ll write it again. Sometimes, you just have a feeling you’re gonna like something, well before you actually experience it. With Girl from the North Country, I had been promised excellent acting, I had been promised a story that doesn’t entirely make sense, I had been promised a distinctive Mood, and I had been promised the music of Bob Dylan sung by people who are distinctly not Bob Dylan. Essentially, I had been promised everything I look for in the theatre.

But that’s never quite enough. Second-hand love isn’t sufficient. You have to have a response yourself, ultimately.

*

But oh lordy did I love Girl From the North Country. Really. Properly loved it. From the minute the music from that excellent 4-piece band struck up to those final, heartbreaking vocals as the lights faded.

SHIRLEY FUCKING HENDERSON.

(Sorry. Had to get it out of my system.)

Look, Girl from the North Country is a musical. It just is, so stop with the play-with-music bullshit. This isn’t Pam Gems’ Piaf, because it follows the rule that governs all musicals: when the characters run out of things to say, they start to sing. Music doesn’t have to further plot, or develop character, or do anything other than extend the emotion into a realm beyond dialogue. And therefore, Girl from the North Country is a musical, because that is what it does.

A strange musical, though. One that is sure of its unsureness, the way it sits between forms. I’ve been trying to work out why it feels strange, and I think it’s possibly because the emotions it extends into song are simultaneously more volatile and violent, and more subtle and nuanced than are traditionally treated in musicals. It is both completely natural and weirdly jarring; the songs sit so deeply in the fabric of the piece, but the piece itself is strange. When Elizabeth Laine starts to sing Like a Rolling Stone, it comes out of nowhere and it so shouldn’t work, but it does; it’s a sudden injection of something, of something that moves so quickly – the perfect representation of what’s happening in her head.

But we’re not in her head, are we? It’s the doctor that bookends the story; it’s his version of events that we get to hear. But even saying that, he’s hardly the central figure, or a central figure. It’s a collage of fragments of lives, the only one who seems to loom particularly, or at least physically large is Nick Laine, the manager of the bed and breakfast that the show fills. The rest of the story just passes through the space, people coming and going. Even the building doesn’t stick around, replaced with landscapes, or just the blackness of the rear of the stage. The band is the only thing that lingers.

SHIRLEY FUCKING HENDERSON.

(Sorry. Won’t happen again.)

But if Nick is the central figure – if that even matters – why doesn’t he sing? Why does the central figure of a musical not sing? If we suppose the show is happening to him, then I guess it makes sense that his character is the most solid, the most stable, the most grounded in reality – even as everything else is happening. He sits at the centre of the hurricane that is invoked in several of the songs, as this whirl of music and noise and the chaos of the lives of other people happens around him. There’s something pretty insoluble about Girl from the North Country, and I have a feeling this is the root of it.

*

But there is plenty I understand about it. I understand great acting even when I don’t understand it. And this company is as good as any I can think of in London right now. And it’s a true ensemble piece; they all get their moments behind the microphone to sing a bit of Dylan. But there are people that stand out.

The first is Sheila Atim, as the Laine’s adopted daughter, pregnant and needing to be married off. I first saw her, completely wordless in Les Blancs, then saw her speak Shakespeare in the Donmar’s Trilogy at King’s Cross, and now I’ve heard her sing full-voiced one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard. She damn near stops the show cold before it’s barely got going with Tight Connection to My Heart – and if you’ve never seen the video that accompanied its initial release, do, it makes Atim’s work all the more striking. She has the clearest voice in the world, with a really subtle sort of movement to it. It probably plants the character in a solidity not given to the character by the text, presumably because McPherson trusts the music and the actor to do the job, and they do.

And Christ, that music. The work of Simon Hale, the orchestrator and arranger has utterly transformed some of Dylan’s lesser known work, stripped it right back to the words and the voice, and then McPherson has done the absolute minimum to get in the way of that, it seems to me. They never allow anything to get in the way of the actor.

The person who benefits most from this, it seems to me (and everyone else that’s seen this, let’s be serious,) is SHIRLEY FUCKING HENDERSON. She is just extraordinary. She rarely leaves the stage and when she’s there you don’t really want to look anywhere else, because you just want to watch the tars track down her face, or watch the way she twists the blanket as she throws it off herself. Her Elizabeth has succumbed to some sort of dementia, and is prone to making passes at the guests. She behaves like a randy five-year-old, basically. She darts around and fidgets and messes with her cardigan, and doesn’t actually say that much. In fact, she doesn’t sing by herself until about an hour into the show.

I’m trying to think of a single moment of theatre recently that brought me as much joy as Shirley Henderson’s rendition of Like a Rolling Stone did, and I can’t think of one. I’d have been happy with another 5 hours of that. Come on McPherson, Roman Tragedies style anthology of all Bob Dylan’s weird albums. Anyway. Considering she’s such a tiny person, Henderson certainly has a considerable set of lungs, it’s not a belt she uses, as much as it’s just like she has a microphone built into her voice box. It’s the sheer volume she can produce as well as her infuriatingly perfect placement that distinguishes Elizabeth’s singing moments so completely from her frail, slurred speaking scenes. You get a sense of the woman Nick fell in love with, and you completely see the woman that told him she didn’t love him any more shortly before the dementia set in.

The way the music then falls into a minor key as she sings the reprise a cappella is equally stunning. The repeated ‘how does it feel’ over and over, a howl from someone that’s lost that kind of sensation. And Forever Young. Christ, Forever Young. It’s just stunning, and unbearably moving. Elizabeth finally gets to talk, and she does so at length, but so very quickly, and she manages to upend everything. Henderson is fucking astonishing, have I made that clear?

*

In short: more musicals like this please. More acting like this please. More Shirley Henderson in great parts on the stage please. Ta.

Photo by Tristram Kenton

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