Bleak House

GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY

Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham, Tuesday 7thFebruary 2023

Imagine Bob Dylan wrote Les Misérables but set it in 1930s dustbowl America à la Steinbeck.  If you can do that, you’re some way to understanding what this show is like.  Technically, a jukebox musical, raiding Dylan’s back catalogue and stringing songs together to tell a story, except it’s not, not really.  The story, with script by the excellent Conor McPherson (of The Weir fame) could work as a straight  play (Well, I’ll come to that later).  The songs could stand alone without the story.  And so instead of a conventional piece of musical theatre where the songs reveal character or develop the plot, what we have here is a straight play interrupted by concert-like performances of the musical numbers.

The setting is a guesthouse under threat of foreclosure by the bank.  The proprietor Nick (Colin Connor) struggles with his estranged wife, Elizabeth, who has developed some kind of dementia, while cajoling his wannabe-writer and alcoholic son to get a job.  Nick is waiting for his mistress’s ship to come in; she’s a widow waiting for probate and they have plans to set up a new guesthouse elsewhere… That American dream, you see.  Meanwhile, Nick’s adopted black daughter is mysteriously pregnant, so he’s trying to marry her off to an elderly shoe repairer, for her own good.  To top it off, there’s a storm brewing and two strangers arrive in the middle of the night, a former boxer and a bible salesman…

There’s more humour than you might expect in this tale of economic hardship, unemployment,  racial prejudice, alcoholism, failed marriage, senility, learning difficulties, and just about every other miserable thing you can think of.  In the first half, at least.  But there are so many characters, there’s not really enough time for things to develop.  It takes a narrator, Dr Walker (Chris McHallem) to provide exposition and to wrap things up at the end.  There are some fine dramatic moments, well played, but apart from the general misery of it all, I’m not particularly moved.  McPherson writes great scenes but, judging by this show, is not so hot when it comes to dramatic structure beyond these vignettes of misery.

And then there are the songs.  Not Dylan’s greatest hits shoehorned in, but a careful curation of some of the more obscure tracks, rearranged to fit the period.  The actors play instruments to augment the onstage band creating a rich sound, but it’s the singing that stands out.  For example, songs like ‘Has Anyone Seen My Love?’, ‘Slow Train’ (wonderfully sung by Joshua C Jackson) and ‘I Want You’ (Gregor Milne) all knock your socks off.  But it’s the ladies who really deliver the goods.  Maria Omakinwa as the elegant widow Mrs Neilson is just about perfect, and so is Justina Kehinde’s pregnant Marianne.  Surprisingly, perhaps, demented Elizabeth (Frances McNamee) almost steals the show with her vigorous dancing and superb vocals. I invariably prefer Dylan’s songs when performed by anyone other than the songwriter, so this score serves to remind me of Old Bob’s songsmithery.

It’s a show of two halves, then, beautifully presented, albeit on a dingy stage, and while I enjoy the drama and love the songs, the two halves don’t quite fit together.  An excellent production, to be sure, but it’s a bit of a downer.  You won’t be dancing in the aisles, but you might be uplifted a little by the gospel-style finale before the crushing bleakness of existence closes in.

Oh well.  I’m off to write a show about the Cod War, using the music of The Smiths.  Why not?

☆ ☆ ☆ ☆

Marianne (Justina Kehinde) – Photo: Johan Persson

About williamstafford

Novelist (Brough & Miller, sci fi, historical fantasy) Theatre critic http://williamstaffordnovelist.wordpress.com/ http://www.amazon.co.uk/-/e/B008AD0YGO and Actor - I can often be found walking the streets of Stratford upon Avon in the guise of the Bard! View all posts by williamstafford

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