Girl from the North Country – The Old Vic

Shirley Henderson and Michael Shaeffer in Girl from the North Country at The Old Vic, London. Picture: Manuel Harlan

Girl from the North Country runs at The Old Vic, London until 7 October.

Star rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★

The Weir playwright Conor McPherson has ‘teamed up’ with singer, songwriter and recent Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan to create – and direct – a dark and mesmerising piece of theatre set in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota, during the Depression.

Girl from the North Country – which takes its name from the 1963 Dylan song – experiments with musical theatre form, as it’s neither a jukebox show of recognisable hits, nor is it merely a play with music. It’s an intriguing hybrid that might alienate both musical theatre regulars and Dylan fans, or – hopefully – expand the horizons for both (mutually exclusive?) groups.

I say ‘teamed up’ in quote marks because, as explained in the programme, McPherson was approached by Dylan’s people and delivered a crate of albums from which to pick any songs of his choice. That appears to have been the extent of their collaboration, but the show is no less a compelling experience because of it.

The setting is a crumbling guesthouse in Duluth that’s run by Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds) and home to a ragbag bunch of itinerants, losers and down-at-heels, both black and white. It’s the 1930s – a few years off Dylan’s birth in 1941 – and during the Depression, race issues take a back seat to poverty, starvation and suicide, especially in the cold northwestern states.

The residents all have back stories, of course: Laine’s wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson) is addled with dementia, leaving her in a volatile, infantile state of mind; their son Gene (Sam Reid) is a failed alcoholic writer, and their adopted black daughter Marianne (Sheila Atim) is unmarried and pregnant; the elderly widowed shopkeeper Mr Perry (Jim Norton) has his eye on Marianne but can we trust his intentions?; the wannabe prize-fighter Joe (Arinzé Kene) might also be an escaped convict; Mr and Mrs Burke (Stanley Townsend, Bronagh Gallagher) struggle to care for their adult but child-like son Elias (Jack Shalloo); the Reverend Marlowe (Michael Shaeffer) may or may not be a man of the cloth; and the divorcee Katherine (Claudia Jolly), who’s waiting on a payout, is having an affair with Nick.

Acting as narrator, and the guesthouse’s pharmacologist, is Dr Walker (Ron Cook). You can tell it’s not going to be a barrel of laughs…

Tom Peters and Karl Queensborough fill out the ensemble, and helping them all tell their stories is an on-stage band of four led from the piano and harmonium by MD Alan Berry, with the actors picking up additional instruments to flesh out orchestrator Simon Hale’s excellent arrangements.

The instruments used are all period – what, Dylan with no Hammond organ?! – giving the show a beautifully authentic folk sound. It really is one of the best sounding shows I’ve heard in a while, so hats off to Berry and his band (Charlie Brown on violin and mandolin, Pete Callard on various guitars, and Don Richardson on upright bass) and to sound engineer Tony Gale and his team.

The 20 Dylan songs selected by McPherson, spanning from 1963 to 2012, are used not to advance the plot but to resonate with and deepen the emotions running feverishly through the scenes.

The performers, often singing into stand mics, typically address the audience, rather than each other, making for a stronger connection between the material and the audience. It’s odd to begin with, but it just works.

The same can be said for the play itself, which is slow to get going but which really starts to bite in Act II. By the end, I was on the edge of my seat.

The performers all, bar none, give immaculate performances. It really is difficult to point at outstanding contributions, but I was absolutely spellbound by Henderson’s jejune Elizabeth, both in terms of her acting and her incredible vocals.

Atim is also strikingly noticeable as Marianne – a real talent – and Kene deserves a nod for his powerful presence. Oh, and well done to Bronagh Gallagher on drums! And where did that come from, Jack Shalloo? You’ll know what I mean when you hear him…

I had few issues with pacing, and the use of at-times cringeworthy narration, but otherwise this is a deeply affecting work that succeeds in crossing boundaries and experimenting with form in a way that The Old Vic’s previous effort, Cover My Tracks, didn’t.

You don’t need to be a Dylan aficionado to enjoy Girl from the North Country – indeed, it might help to not know the songs. I’d love to know what the old fella thinks about the final result.

Craig Glenday

Tickets for Girls from the North Country at The Old Vic are available HERE.


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