The idea of Bob Dylan’s songbook landing on a playwright’s mat, along with the invitation to use whichever of the numbers he fancies for the making of a stage musical, sounds like the plotline for a dare-to-dream show.
Yet this is just what fell into the life of the now seasoned Dublin dramatist Conor McPherson, whose play The Weir established him as an author of daring and narrative confidence just over twenty years ago. The result, freshly transferred to the Noel Coward Theatre after a sold-out run last year at the Old Vic, is a stage show of wild and peculiar originality.
Given The Weir and subsequent plays such as Port Authority in 2001 and The Nest in 2016, McPherson was a smart choice by Dylan. Considering his own output this past half-century, that songbook lands with one hell of a thud on the receiving mat, and the playwright spent a whole year working his way through the forty albums and the lyrical byways which contain masterpieces of relative obscurity.
That of course was always one of the appeals. Away from the worthy hits such as Blowing in the Wind and Mr. Tambourine Man, the backwaters harbour an astounding range of songs from all quarters of the American tradition. These include the traditional migrant folk of McPherson’s own land, the surreal musings of the stoned Sixties (the old century’s, that is, not Dylan’s) to the three-chords-and-middle-eight pop song that would have been at home in the Brill Building hit factory.
Passed through McPherson’s hands, the result of this remote collaboration has the feel of a mid-century U.S. play that might have been scripted by Thornton Wilder or a young Tennessee Williams. Cleverly, he has set his story in Dylan’s home town of Duluth, but in placing it a decade before the songwriter’s birth he wraps it in the rough blanket of The Great Depression.
So here we are in 1934 in a struggling guesthouse where such words as debt and depression have applications that are as much public as personal. They constitute a state of America in their own right. What better librettist for this condition than Dylan, whose father Abe Zimmerman, a polio-stricken and laid-off oil worker, moved the family seventy miles north of Duluth to his wife’s home town of Hibbing.
If there is one Dylan song whose essence hangs in the air – and airs – of this evening, it is not the title track but another early one, North Country Blues. This describes an America of “cardboard-filled windows and old men on the benches” as plainly as John Steinbeck or Dylan’s influential predecessor, Woody Guthrie.
However we got here, here we are, sharing the lives of the guesthouse owner Nick; his demented wife and feckless son; his daughter – adopted, black, pregnant – whom he is trying to marry off to a shoe salesman who, like his own and everyone else’s shoes, is down-at-heel.
In come the guests and their hard-pressed lots – the boxer on the run, the bankrupt family, the dire hypocrite of a Bible seller. Then there is Nick’s lover, living in the ever-deferred hope of a life-changing legacy. In with them come the songs with their own rich, worked seams of yearning, despair and redemption.
This is where it gets interesting. Dylan’s songs may indeed have become that overworked notion of a generation’s soundtrack, but they are nothing if not vibrant presences, characters even, in their own right. So, if ever there was a notion that these musical beings were going to be pressed into service as some choric device to underscore the play’s narrative, it’s out of the window as soon as the curtain is up.
What we have instead is an ongoing exchange between the numbers and the narrative. Yes, there are relevances and crossovers, but they have the feeling of being found, or stumbled upon, rather than imposed. Given the presence of a boxer at the guesthouse, it’s no coincidence that we run into a Dylan song about that sport. But the song is Hurricane, all about the struggle of a real fighter, Ruben Hurricane Carter, against false accusations of murder.
Off it goes on its own sweet, or bitter way; different time, different state, different people. And then, suddenly, because the rhythms match, it gets hijacked by All Along The Watchtower and carried into that song’s own distinctive landscape.
Being Dylan songs, many of them – Jokerman, Duquesne Whistle, Like A Rolling Stone to name but three of the twenty – have their own dramas to unfold. In the case of Idiot Wind, there is a whole other battle raging, this one for the soul of an America half a century on from the dustbowl years. The continuous joy of this musical is that the songs and the dialogue manage to co-exist without upstaging each other; even without mutual cluttering. Somehow their lives interconnect and enhance one another, and more harmoniously so than those of the guests.
Sure-handed direction by the author, and a range of outstanding performances from the versatile ensemble. Also, in Ciaran Hinds’s Nick, a moving study of authority undermined by circumstance. With Shirley Henderson powerful as his wife, more perilous than shifting cargo, and Sheila Atim poignant as his desolate daughter, he heads a family whose own crisis mirrors that of the nation. Thank God they’ve got Bob on their side.
Review by Alan Franks
Due to phenomenal demand following a sell-out, critically acclaimed run at The Old Vic, Bob Dylan’s and Conor McPherson’s Girl from the North Country comes to the West End for a strictly limited season.
Brought to life by an exceptional company of actors and musicians, award-winning playwright Conor McPherson beautifully weaves the iconic songbook of Bob Dylan into this new show full of hope, heartbreak and soul. Duluth, Minnesota. 1934. A community living on a knife-edge huddle together in the local guesthouse.
The owner, Nick, owes more money than he can ever repay, his wife Elizabeth is losing her mind and their daughter Marianne is carrying a child no one will account for. And, when a preacher selling bibles and a boxer looking for a comeback show up in the middle of the night, things start to spiral beyond the point of no return…
Girl From the North Country
Writer & Director Conor McPherson
Music & Lyrics Bob Dylan
Designer Rae Smith
Orchestrator, Arrangements & Musical Supervisor Simon Hale
Lighting Mark Henderson
Sound Simon Baker
Movement Director Lucy Hind
Casting Director Jessica Ronane CDG
Casting to be announced soon.
Noël Coward Theatre
St Martin’s Lane
London WC2N 4AU