Girl from the North Country company Girl from the North Country, the company. Photo: Manual Harlan

Girl from the North Country
Written and Directed by Conor McPherson
Music and lyrics by Bob Dylan
Old Vic Theatre, London.
Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell

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This is neither a greatest hits compilation nor a typical musical where the songs drive the plot, but rather a play with music and a remarkable hybrid form which is, as writer/director Conor McPherson puts it, a “conversation between the songs and the story”.

Girl from the North Country Sheila-Atim and Shirley-Henderson in Girl from the North Country. Photo: Manual Harlan

An astonishingly talented cast of 16 get to perform 20 great songs of Dylan from across his vast career. Simon Haley has created exquisite arrangements for a cracking 4-piece band and with McPherson has opted for an unusual approach. Solos, duets or trios are sung with the performers at standing mics and so are directed, concert-like, at the audience. Far from hobbling the story, as you might think, Dylan’s songs are underlined and are used either to counterpoint the narrative, to articulate the characters innermost feelings or simply to enhance the overall mood, one which has been expertly modulated throughout by McPherson himself as director. The songs never feel shoehorned.

The idea, amazingly, was suggested by Dylan’s “people” and McPherson came up with this treatment to which the Great Man gave his assent. The story is set among a motley bunch of characters inhabiting a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota (Dylan’s home state) in 1934 at the height of the Great Depression, when so many lives, dreams and hopes were shattered.

Nick (Ciarán Hinds), the owner of the boarding house, is crumbling under a crushing debt and his wife, an astonishingly powerful Shirley Henderson, has dementia which leads to outbursts which shatter all social conventions. The elfin like Henderson delivers vocals of such astonishing power it’s like witnessing a Piaf. They have a layabout son (Sam Reid) and they’re trying to marry off an adopted, pregnant, and black daughter, played by the striking Sheila Atim, to an elderly shoe salesman, played by McPherson regular, Jim Norton. In a very poignant scene he comes a-wooing and levels with the girl that he’s her only option. This was a time when everyone’s options were rapidly diminishing.

The guests are in a worse state: there’s a bankrupt business man (Stanley Townsend) and his wife (Bronagh Gallagher, also great on drums!) and disabled son (Jack Shalloo), a fugitive boxer (Arinzé Kene) and an odious, blackmailing preacher-cum-Bible salesman (Michael Schaeffer). McPherson highlights how for the black characters the Depression was just more of the same but even as far north as here, their options were even fewer.

There’s also Nick’s own lover, Mrs Neilsen (a striking Debbie Kurup) who is awaiting a legacy that fails to arrive, crushing her and Nick’s hopes even further. McPherson’s great achievement here is that while foregrounding the amazing vocals he also manages to keep this complex multi-character narrative in the air, such that, by the end, when we learn from the kindly doctor/ narrator (Ron Cook), of the fate of them all, we are devastated.

It is an exceptional blend of play, musical and concert that translates Dylan’s poetic genius into a theatrical form by fusing it with McPherson’s mastery of mood, time and place.

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Girl from the North Country Shirley Henderson and Michael Shaeffer in Girl from the North Country. Photo: Manual Harlan

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