This play by Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, is emphatically not a musical, nor it is a jukebox selection of greatest hits. Instead, it is a play set in the era of the Depression, with many storylines intertwining, some succeeding and taking flight, some so ephemeral they disappear into thin air.
Into this play are inserted a number of Dylan songs written between 1963 and 2012, which the characters perform to the audience rather than to each other, giving the production a dream quality and the songs a route into the minds and thoughts of the characters who cannot admit them to themselves or each other.
Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds) runs a boarding house, which he rents while he fast runs out of money, and he lives there with his wife, Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson), who has dementia and a lack of inhibition, and who told him, shortly before her mind was broken, that she didn’t love him.
He seeks solace with a young widow, Mrs Neilsen (Debbie Kurrup), who waits for a legacy from her marriage that might never come, and shares the confined space of his decaying abode with feckless son Gene (Sam Reid), and adopted black daughter, Marianne (Sheila Atim), who is mysteriously with child and set to be married off to a local elderly and lonely tradesman, Mr Perry (Jim Norton).
There’s an ‘Our Town’ type narrator, the local doctor (Ron Cook), a bickering couple (Stanley Townsend and Bronagh Gallagher) with a son with learning difficulties (Jack Shalloo), and a couple of drifters: one a Bible bashing blackmailer, Rev Marlowe (Michael Schaeffer), and the other a pugilist with aggression in his soul, Joe Scott (Arinze Kene), who take up residence with the Laines.
Hinds doesn’t sing. He’s the only cast member who doesn’t even join in the group numbers, and this seems deliberate to emphasise his isolation from the rest of the characters (either that, or he really can’t hold a tune!). His Nick should draw more sympathy than he does; I found his vocal delivery sometimes veered towards the shouty, and that’s a shame when I have seen him do far more nuanced work in other plays and on television.
Bronagh Gallagher, who I remember playing Minnie in a TV production of Shadow of a Gunman many years ago, is absolutely terrific as the ignored wife and devastated mother. She’s a dab hand on the drums too. Shirley Henderson, too, is totally convincing as the lost spirit, and the soaring, shining spark which comes alive in song (notably Like a Rolling Stone and Forever Young).
I remain unconvinced by some of the plot points, such as why Gene would react in such a racist way to Joe when he has grown up with a black girl as his sister; in fact I felt the story might be taking a much more sinister turn than it eventually did. Also I did not really feel engaged with his lost love story with Kate Draper (Claudia Jolly), although their duet of I Want You was delicious.
Norton gives yet another superb performance as Mr Perry, who remembers ‘a warm light and a smile’ from his married days, and who seems to have genuine concern and affection for Marianne. His character is poignant, but he also seems to enjoy singing and dancing in those ensemble numbers.
Cook’s character is more problematic; he is good, but seems superfluous, and I really thought his closing monologue was not needed. I would have much preferred a fade to black after Elizabeth’s final line. There’s one standout musical number and performance, but to reveal what and who would spoil a major plot point, so I will leave you to see and enjoy it.
The use of Dylan songs is clever, and it shows that complete artistic control was seded to McPherson and his team: I felt that Slow Train and Hurricane were particular high points. In a simple set, with instruments of the period, you could summarise this production as being performed by a hard-working cast, but with too many loose threads, with some excellent nuggets here and there (two marriages showing their cracks, people pretending to be what they are not, people being accused of things they didn’t do), and an excellent use of light, shadow and space in the musical numbers.
Girl From The North Country continues at the Old Vic until the 7th October, with limited availability. A cast recording of the musical numbers has been released on CD and for streaming on Spotify.