Theater Review: Girl from the North Country, by Conor McPherson, at the Old Vic

North countryThose who know me will not be surprised that when I heard a play was being produced in London based on songs by Bob Dylan, I would rush to get tickets. My partner bought a pair of tickets as a Christmas present last year, and we were in the front row, dead center.

This is the first time Dylan has authorized the use of his music on stage since an ill-fated dance-based show by Twyla Tharp in 2006, that lasted a mere three weeks on Broadway. Dylan’s record company, Sony, approached playwright and director Conor McPherson asking if he would be interested in writing something around Dylan’s songs, and while he was reluctant, he came up with an idea and submitted it to Dylan’s management. They approved, and he went ahead with the project. The theater describes it as follows:

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…

With sixteen actors and four musicians, this is neither a musical nor a play, but a theatrical work that marries the two. Unlike in most musicals, where the songs are integral to the plot, here they act as a sort of reflecting pool to the various dramatic scenes. At times, this can seem a bit forced, such as when the 1975 song Hurricane is sung. One of the characters is a boxer who has recently been released – or has he escaped? – from jail, and who sings a couple of verses from the song. But the fact that he’s a boxer isn’t essential to the plot; I get the feeling that McPherson just liked that song, and wanted to use it, so created a character to fit it.

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But at other times, the music stands as a perfect counterpoint to the events in the play. Songs like I Want You, sung by Nick’s son Gene and Katherine Draper, a woman leaving for marriage and a new city, act as a light shining on the characters’ inner feelings. Like a Rolling Stone, sung by the wonderful Shirley Henderson, as Elizabeth Lane, expresses her confusion and dissatisfaction with her life, as does her closing number Forever Young. And the brilliant Sheila Atim brought down the house with her rendition of Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love?) early in the show.

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The acting was excellent, especially that of Ciarán Hinds as Nick, Shirley Henderson as Elizabeth, and Sheila Atim as Marriane Laine. But some of the smaller roles stood out, such as Michael Shaeffer as the conniving Reverend Marlowe and Arinzé Kene, as Joe Scott, the boxer. Kudos also to the four musicians, Alan Berry, Charlie Brown, Pete Callard, and Don Richardson, who, mostly at the back of the stage on the left, provided the sounds that gave life to this idea. (An original cast recording will be released at the end of September. And you can buy the text of the play in book form. (Amazon.com, Amazon UK))

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There was something magical about this production. While the text itself doesn’t shine, and the plot is perhaps a bit more confusing than it needs to be, the combination of the music and the staging, and especially the beautiful arrangements of Dylan’s songs – some well known, others somewhat obscure – made this a delightful evening. While I know all the songs, my partner, who only puts up with Dylan because I like him, enjoyed this immensely, and, while I’m sure there were a lot of Dylan fans in the audience, I would think that most people there didn’t know more than a handful of his songs, if any.

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Whether you’re a Dylan fan or not, I strongly recommend seeing this play if you’re in London. If you are a Dylan fan, and you’re anywhere in the UK, you should make a trip to London to see it. It is currently listed as closing on October 7, but given its success and excellent reviews, I wouldn’t be surprised if it transfers to the West End, or even to Broadway eventually. This could be a production that could run for quite a long time, and given Dylan’s stature and popularity, it would make sense for it to be continued. I know that if I were in London, I’d see it again.

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