Girl from the North Country

Posted by Laurence Green

Laurence Green reviews Conor McPherson's new production, The Girl from the North Country, which plays homage to the talent of singer/songwriter, Bob Dylan.

Girl from the North Country

It seems surprising that so far compilation musicals have overlooked the work of one of our greatest living singer/songwriters, Bob Dylan. But that is no longer the case with Conor (The Weir) McPherson’s The Girl from the North Country (Old Vic Theatre), which is not so much a musical as a play, interwoven with songs by Dylan, and directed by McPherson.

The action is set in the winter of 1934 in Dylan’s home town of Duluth, Minnesota, when the Great Depression was laying waste to farms and families and suicide rates were soaring. We are in a boarding house, owned by the bank but run by Nick Laine, who is drowning in debt. Laine loves the young widow Mrs Nielsen but is already married to Elizabeth, a provocative child-woman who is losing her mind. The couple have a son, Gene, who is s struggling writer, and an adopted daughter, Marianne, who is refusing to disclose the father of her unborn son. 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 for this community living on a knife-edge.

This is a low-key, slow-burn production that unfolds at its own unhurried pace which resembles nothing so much as a collection of meticulously rendered short stories, performed to the audience by the actors/singers using hand held microphones, accompanied by a pared-back on stage band.

I feel that McPherson as both writer and director has tried to do too much and the sheer number of characters means that no story is fully developed. It is as if his wild and wonderful imagination has been constrained by the structure he has imposed on himself.

Nevertheless, this is an intelligent inventive production which is at times deeply moving and has a pleasing folksy ambience which make the characters and stories ring true. Mark Henderson’s starkly shadowed lighting makes the whole thing look like a beautiful tableau. 

Ciaran Hinds is excellent as the long-suffering Nick Laine bringing a gentle but hulking stoicism to the character who has a tragic past, present and future. Screen star Shirley Henderson also impresses as Elizabeth, his wife no longer in love with her husband. Strong support is provided by Sam Reid as their son Gene, Sheila Atim as their adopted daughter, Marianne, Debbie Kurup as Mrs Neilson, and Ron Cook as a wise doctor who comments on the action.

And whatever the failings of the drama, there is always the music. Indeed this is Dylan as we’ve never heard him before, 20 songs, ranging from the 1963 title number to 2012’s Duquesne Whistle, with beautiful new arrangements by Simon Hale, and delivered so well by the company that they send shivers down the spine, as we hear the lyrics afresh. Most memorable are the emotionally charged, I Want You, and the final number, Forever Young, which Shirley Henderson sings most poignantly.

Girl from the North Country

Showing at the Old Vic Theatre until 7 October 2017

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