Bob Dylan’s music is like a favourite old overcoat which warms you, comforts you, soothes you as you retrieve it from the coat-rack and wear it again to ward off the approaching winter chill. But it has surprises. You reach into the pockets and discover forgotten memorabilia languishing: the jingle-jangle of some coins, a dog-eared shopping list, that pen you’ve been searching high and low for and the neatly folded order of service from a funeral. And there are other, unknown, objects left, perhaps, by someone else to whom you lent your coat: yes, Dylan’s music always surprises; always tugs at the heart strings; and it always grabs your soul.
Of course, I understand that not everyone is an aficionado. But it would be difficult to come away from Girl From The North Country without acknowledging that Bob’s got rhythm, Bob’s got melody and Bob’s got the lyrics to go with them.
We have folk, we have gospel, we have Judas-music (folk-rock), perhaps not played as “f***ing loud” as Dylan would like, but performed by an on-stage band of exquisite musicality, directed by Alan Berry, with songs delivered by some exceptional voices, top-notch singers who are experts at their craft and who demonstrably know and feel the songs.
And those songs: those lonesome, haunting American anti-dream polemics depicting the lives of the downtrodden, the struggles of the oppressed, the lost values of a rampant commercial world. And there are love songs, too: unashamed eulogies to lost soul-mates and faded dreams. It’s poetry, poetry set to music and the underlying theme has always been – from Dylan’s early Ballad of Hollis Brown, through Joey, right up to Duquesne Whistle, featured in this show, – is pathos: the poetry is in the pathos.
So – how do you turn all this into a play? You call, naturally, for the Grand Master of dramatic story-telling – which is, apparently, exactly what Bob Dylan did. One assumes, but one doesn’t know – he likes to maintain the mystique around his persona – that Dylan had come across – and liked – Conor McPherson’s work at some point. Perhaps he appreciated the edgy, discomfiting, unapologetic story-telling that we see in McPherson’s The Weir and the recent television play Paula. Whatever the route into the writing partnership it became possibly the strangest theatrical collaboration since Andrew Lloyd Webber got together with the deceased T.S. Eliot to produce Cats. Dylan told the playwright to “use any song in any way you like” and that was it. McPherson doesn’t even know if the Great Troubadour is going to come and see the play that he has lovingly created.
When the playwright set to work he realised the timeless quality of Dylan’s songs and thus set his play in 1930s Depression-riven, rust-belt America, in Dylan’s birth-place, Duluth Minnesota. Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds) is the impoverished owner of a guest house with a myriad of family problems, foreclosure looming and a collection of quite weird and wonderful guests. From this rich seam of possibilities a wealth of individual stories emerge and meander like tributaries from the main river and the songs, mirroring the various characters’ dreams and disappointments and motives are woven in by McPherson like a living tapestry, a knowing dialogue with the audience that seems to be saying: OK, this is a story, this is a play and these are songs: sit back, breathe in and enjoy. Helping this, McPherson, who also directs, makes the inspired decision to have the songs sung directly to the audience with retro mikes on stands so that we feel that although we may be interested voyeurs of the intricate lives that are being bared before us we are also invited in to the brittle warmth of this diversely peopled gust house.
Joe Scott (Arinzé Kene) is the former boxer, wrongfully imprisoned, who gives us a stirring rendition of Hurricane. The superb Bronagh Gallagher, as platinum-rinsed blonde not-quite-bombshell Mrs Burke, has that dark, husky slightly slurred intonation of the archetypal Country and Western singer, often whilst tapping away on the drum-kit. Nick Lane’s unmarried but pregnant adopted daughter, Marianne, is empathetically portrayed by Sheila Atim who is the real deal as a vocalist and brings a vibrant, bluesy realism to her interpretations of Dylan’s more mournful compositions: great singer. But best of all is Shirley Henderson as Nick’s demented wife whose apparently mad and provocative observations contain a certain knowing child-like wisdom: her vocals are raw but cultured; haunting but tangible; distant but close-up and personal. Henderson performs the numbers as if her very existence depended on it and that pathos in Dylan’s words is never more evident.
There are no weak links in this troupe of singers and McPherson’s inspired use of the ensemble for backing vocals and chorus – getting an authentic gospel feel to some of the numbers – is testament to his innate understanding of how music can be used to enhance, to underscore and to develop the narrative. It must have been quite something for the cast to have a director who strummed his guitar and sang along with them in rehearsals. Credit, too, to Musical Supervisor Simon Hale for his arrangements and orchestration.
Clever framing of the action by Designer Rae Smith gives the show that wistful, desolate look of an Edward Hopper painting, complemented by Mark Henderson’s subtle and effective lighting. And Simon Baker’s Sound ensures that we get the very best resonance from these sublime singers.
Matthew Warchus, Artistic Director of the Old Vic, is searching for a word to describe this type of show – neither bona fide “musical” or typical “play with songs”. It’s a “Dylanesque”, Matthew. It’s bound to set a trend. There will be more Dylanesques – though not necessarily with Bob Dylan’s music. And it will be difficult to replicate the atmosphere and melancholy of Girl From The North Country.
Review by Peter Yates
Duluth, Minnesota in the midst of the Great Depression. A family adrift, their future on a knife edge. Lost and lonely people drifting through the rooms of their guesthouse. But Nick Laine thinks he’s seen a way out…
The full cast list includes Sheila Atim, Ron Cook, Bronagh Gallagher, Shirley Henderson, Ciaran Hinds, Claudia Jolly, Arinzé Kene, Debbie Kurup, Jim Norton, Sam Reid, Michael Shaeffer, Jack Shalloo, and Stanley Townsend.
GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY
Booking Period: Until 7 October 2017
The Old Vic
103 The Cut, London, SE1 8NB