Girl from the North Country

Theatre, Drama Old Vic , Southwark Until Saturday October 7 2017
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 (© Manuel Harlan)
1/5
© Manuel Harlan

Arinze Kene (Joe Scott)

 (© Manuel Harlan)
2/5
© Manuel Harlan
 (© Manuel Harlan)
3/5
© Manuel Harlan

Jim Norton (Mr Perry) and Sheila Atim (Marianne Laine)

 (© Manuel Harlan)
4/5
© Manuel Harlan

Sam Reid (Gene Laine) and Ciaran Hinds (Nick Laine)

 (© Manuel Harlan)
5/5
© Manuel Harlan

Shirley Henderson (Elizabeth Laine) and Michael Shaeffer (Reverend Marlowe)

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Conor McPherson’s dark, evocative Great Depression drama, built around the songs of Bob Dylan

Whatever you do, don’t call it the ‘Bob Dylan musical’. Yes, the erstwhile Robert Zimmerman may have once described himself as ‘a song and dance man’. But playwright-director Conor McPherson’s bleak, Dylan-soundtracked ‘Girl from the North Country’ is a play with songs that avoids the trappings of musical theatre like the plague – there are no dance routines, no happy endings, and the Old Vic stage remains dimly lit and half-shrouded in darkness. Dylan himself had no creative input, but one assumes it was always implicit in his licensing of the songs that it wasn’t ever going to be a big tits-and-teeth West End show with Bob’s name in lights.

Taking place in the Dustbowl at the height of the Great Depression, ‘Girl from the North Country’ extracts the Steinbeckian strand from Dylan’s oeuvre, and might be imagined as an extra story that didn’t make Todd Haynes’s haunting, Dylan-inspired film ‘I’m Not There’.

It’s set at an inn in Duluth, Minnesota (Dylan’s hometown) in 1934. Nick Laine (Ciaran Hinds), the gruff owner of the establishment, has many problems, not least the apparent dementia of his wife Elizabeth, played by Shirley Henderson in a truly bewitching turn, intense, otherworldly, almost rockstar-like. The show is set entirely in the inn, and follows the Laines and their patrons, who range from Joe (Arinze Kene), an ex-con boxer looking to put his life back in order, to Stanley Townsend’s Mr Burke, a member of the elite fallen on hard times, now drifting through the night with his crumbling family.

It’s a compelling set of stories, albeit sketched broader than is typical of McPherson, but with a narrower scope than Dylan’s freewheelin’ lyrical oeuvre. It touches on a lot of issues – race, faith, disability, capitalism, justice, immigration – but never really interrogates any of them.

But there’s still something powerful in their evocation. And of course, the show’s real USP is the music. For the most part, these are not the tracks you’d expect: there’s just a handful of big singles (though don’t worry, we get a spine-tingling ‘Like a Rolling Stone’), and despite the folky instrumentation, Dylan’s actual folk era is almost ignored. But the arrangements – by Simon Hale – are ravishing, songs building through bare vocals then layered with fiddle and an omnipresent kick drum played by whichever member of the cast happens to be walking past. Certainly they more than make a case for Dylan’s body of work. And to state the obvious, however oblique the song choices feel, they’re considerably less oblique than what you get at a Dylan concert these days, and the singing is beautiful, especially from Henderson.

‘Girl from the North Country’ would feel imperfect and undersketched as either musical or play, but smush them together and you’ve got something. It’s a mood piece, marrying the myths of Dylan and the Depression into something timeless and elegant – a stark evocation of the American firmament.

By: Andrzej Lukowski

Posted:

Venue name: Old Vic
Contact:
Address: 103 The Cut
Waterloo Rd
London
SE1 8NB
Opening hours: Bar open 6pm-midnight Mon and Tue; 1pm-midnight Wed; 6pm-2am Thu and Fri; 1pm-2am Sat
Transport: Tube: Waterloo; Rail: Waterloo
Price: £12-£67.50. Runs 2hr 30min
Event website: http://www.oldvictheatre.com/whats-on/2017/girl-from-the-north-country
To improve this listing email: feedback@timeout.com
    • £12-£67.50. Runs 2hr 30min
    • £12-£67.50. Runs 2hr 30min
    • £12-£67.50. Runs 2hr 30min
    • £12-£67.50. Runs 2hr 30min
    • £12-£67.50. Runs 2hr 30min
    • £12-£67.50. Runs 2hr 30min
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Average User Rating

3.9 / 5

Rating Breakdown

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  • 4 star:6
  • 3 star:4
  • 2 star:2
  • 1 star:1
LiveReviews|22
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1 of 1 found helpful
tastemaker
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I honestly didn't know deeply enough Bob Dylan's work before seeing this play, so I had no expectations at all on that. At the end of the show, I was litterally AMAZED, THRILLED and MOVED. The incredibly talented cast, the emotional content of the plot, the obviously high quality and beauty of the music and of the direction, have glued my body to the seat and my eyes to the stage for the whole duration of the show. No spoilers, you just need to go and see this performance to understand. I truly believe it is one of the best shows currently played in town and missing it would be just a shame!

1 of 1 found helpful
Tastemaker

I really wanted to love this; it’s Bob Dylan’s music at the Old Vic, however it just didn’t hit the spot for me. The singing is undoubtably good but the storyline felt not only secondary to the music but a bit light touch. It was visible a lot of people in the crowd loved it, a lot of older die hard Dylan fans, but for me, there just wasn’t enough meat on the bones.

Tastemaker

It’s hard to talk about the beauty of this musical without giving away any spoiler. So, you’ll just have to believe me when I say it’s truly gripping.


Starting when all the characters are on the verge of a breakdown, the story is truly an emotion-filled, tear-inducing plot. It’s riveting and fascinating. And the superb cast carries it so well it’s jaw-dropping. But one must underline the performance of Shirley Henderson, an absolute revelation, playing this mentally ill woman.


If you’re not a fan of Bob Dylan, don’t worry. The way it’s performed twists the words and feelings of each song to give it a different meaning and carry a haunting sadness. Absolutely incredible!


Do think twice... it's alright. If you're someone who enjoys a plot, don't watch this play. If you're someone who really loves Dylan's music (like myself), you will likely to be disappointed. Very few of his best songs are featured, and those that are are performed in far weaker arrangements that the originals. The actors were all fantastic, but there were no musically exciting moments, too many characters, and a story that never comes together. It ain't for me, babe.

tastemaker

Absolutely fantastic! Girl from the North Country is a crossover between a play full of emotions and a musical with incredible voices. The play is about a family running a bed and breakfast place back in the 30s and about all the characters that stay in this house for a couple of nights. You get to live the lives and the issues of each of the characters in this troubled time of history: unemployment, unwanted pregnancy, dementia, illness, suicide. A bit depressing for sure but I'd more describe it as touching, the actors are brilliant and the soundtrack brings even more depth to their characters. For Harry Potter's fans, you would love to know that Shirley Henderson plays one of the main characters.

tastemaker

Being unfamiliar with Bob Dylan’s work other than his most famous songs (something I will now rectify - I promise), I wasn’t sure what to expect from Connor McPherson’s latest play. Set in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota during the 1930s, the lives of various inhabitants and travellers are told and intertwine, set to a Dylan soundtrack. At first, I personally found it a little jarring when the cast broke into a tune straight from another scene, but once I got used to it, this was a remarkable and beautiful play. The cast were impeccable, especially Ciaran Hinds and Shirley Henderson (what a voice - who knew?!) in the lead-roles. One of the best plays I have seen on the London stage in recent times - wonderful.

tastemaker

I enjoyed this show, my friend hated it (she had a nap in the middle) - so I think it's not for everyone! I very much liked the singing, but don't actually know any Bob Dylan songs - apparently they sound pretty different. The story was not very chipper, but I liked it. I do think the songs didnt always fit in with the story, but that's pretty standard in one of these musicals. Elizabeth was brilliant, she gets all the gold stars!

tastemaker

What a delight!

I adored this show, I went knowing nothing apart from a hand full of songs by Bob Dylan but what a story the music told.

As always I wouldn't ruin the plot but the part of Elizabeth is perfectly acted, how she portrayed her dementia illness alongside the story line and constantly on stage was brilliant. Nick her husband is doing his best to run a bed & breakfast style lodging with his drunk son and adopted pregnant accidentally daughter.

Nick has his own stories to tell from history to present and all actors soulfully sing their way through the story.

The story tells the lives of various lodgers in Nicks house alongside an on stage band and the doctor for a narrator.

The writing, directing and overall stage performance is brilliant, it felt good to watch something unexpected and different.

Expect to toe tap, jump and I even shed a tear!

Tastemaker

Whatever you do, don't go to this show expecting uplifting tunes and a happily ever after west end fairy tale. This is a gritty, harsh play set in the midst of the Great Depression featuring some of the wonderful songs by the great Bob Dylan.

Although perhaps a bit sombre and hard hitting, this is a very well acted piece. The characters are very relatable and the intertwining stories are both intriguing and emotional. The singing is absolutely fantastic too, I defy you not to feel a tingle down your spine with some of the numbers!

Very different to other shows on the west end and the standing ovation was well deserved.

tastemaker
Set in North America during the depths of the Great Depression and soundtracked with Bob Dylan songs, this show is profoundly moving. I went in its second week after opening and every seat was full; the audience gave a standing ovation at the end so that should give you some indication into the popularity of this show. It isn’t just for Dylan fans. Unlike most shows that are based around an artist’s soundtrack, the story is intricate, involved and emotional. The level of talent amongst the actors is incredible. Not only are they great actors but their singing voices gave me goosebumps! I loved that the band (including a double bass, guitar and of course a harmonica) were on stage as part of the set and together they have come up with their own arrangements of the songs with the actors really making them their own.
tastemaker

Goosebumps. 


Even if you're not a major Bob Dylan fan you will still appreciate the beauty of this piece of theatre. 

Directed by Conor McPherson it could have easily been miserable for the simple fact that Dylan's music is of the depression era but it had a lot of heart and soul in it, and McPherson got the tone just right, while still creating that feeling of yearning and desperation that was America in the late 30's, with each song perfectly placed at moments within the story to connect us more and more to the characters. It's a remarkable fusion of music and text and I think a wonderful evening at the theatre. 


Set in a rundown guesthouse in Dylans home town, Duluth, Minnesota, we meet Nick the owner who has to take care of his wife with dementia (wonderfully played by Shirley Henderson), deal with his debt, a waster of a son, and an adopted daughter who is pregnant who is he trying to marry off. We also meet the guests of the b&b, and as they're stories interweave we hear songs from every decade of Dylan. 


'You ain't going nowhere' is stunningly performed and choreographed bringing every character together, perfectly snap shooting the mood of hope endlessly deferred. 

tastemaker

A play more that a musical set in the depression era in America alongside some Bob Dylan songs.  I couldn't really call this a musical, it felt too disjointed.  The acting and singing were both strong individually but  I didn't feel that they really complemented each other, mostly the songs were quite disconnected from the rest of the story.


The story was a bit lacking for me too, it didn't really have much of a conclusion.  I found it was more separate snippets of some of the characters lives and wasn't always sure what the overall narrative was and how it connected together.  This wasn't helped by the distracting performance of Shirley Henderson, the part seemed a bit miscast and she looked far too young to be playing someone of her age.  I missed that she had dementia at the start and thought that she was an adult with mental problems.


This is the first time I've actually been inside the Old Vic, it's a very beautiful theatre with three levels of seating.  There is a good amount of leg room and it's a good size that wherever you sit you will get a great view of the stage.  You can't take any photos inside the auditorium, it feels like you've stepped back in time with the gilt decor and chandliers hanging from the ceiling.


This show took my breath away! The cast all have stunning voices but I was particularly blown away by the stunningly beautiful performance by Shirley Henderson. She is such a slight little thing but wow what a voice! 


The story takes us back to a time when things were tough but the fundamentals of life still rolled on. Family drama, as always, takes centre stage and it was lovely to watch the story unfold and the characters come to life. The story itself is a very emotional one and you won't come out feeling uplifted but defiantly will feel like you have been taken on a ride. The music, particularly in the first half was beautifully intertwined to showcase the sadness and troubles that the characters are enduring.


The Old Vic itself is a stunning old building and well worth seeing in its own right. In particular when the disco ball lights it up at one point it is so beautiful!!


I would highly recommend going to see this show if you get the chance, it is very moving and beautiful! 

tastemaker

A star-studded cast including Shirley Henderson (who was both hilarious and heartbreaking as Elizabeth), Ron Cook and Bronagh Gallagher. Girl from the north country is hauntingly beautiful with stunning musical performances and a storyline which really hits you at the end.


The moment Sheila Atim started to sing I had Goosebumps. Her voice and her portrayal of Marianne were simply breath-taking.


Whilst the story felt, in parts, as if it needed a little more detail, overall it was a truly touching play that left me close to tears on more than one occasion (and I heard several sobs from the audience too!) 

tastemaker

Heartwarming and heartbreaking this play took me on quite the emotional journey. I absolutely have to give this five stars as every element was perfect from set design to performance.

Following a lodgers family and the people who stay with them this play explores the effects the great depression had upon all these people. Showing it in such an insular micro way was really powerful rather than highlighting facts of the time and showing the effects in mass. I had never thought about the great depression in terms of how it effected people individually so this is was a really interesting way of doing that as now I have a new perspective on it.

Additionally the soundtrack was all Bob Dylans music which worked perfectly in creating a melancholic atmosphere. The cast one hundred percent did these songs justice and all had beautiful voices. I particularly loved marianne and Elizabeth who for me carried the play. Despite Elizabeths dimentia she ironically made the most sense and brought out a comedic side in the play as well as a heartbreaking one.

I would go and see it again and even writing this now I feel emotional about it, it really is an amazing production with a very talented cast so I urge people to see it before it closes in October!

tastemaker

This powerful show about real problems and distress in peoples lives was incredibly captivating and beautiful. The story is well done and powerful but what made it for me was the music. Music by Bob Dylan accompanied by the most outstanding vocals I've heard on a show for a long time. I enjoyed watching Shirley Henderson (moaning myrtle, from harry potter)  she was extremely entertaining in her portrayal of someone suffering from dementia.  I did get a bit choked up at points, I would really recommend it, it was beautiful. 

tastemaker

I went to see this play yesterday night with my husband and we had a great time.  The actors, or should I call them singers?, were very talented and all with a particular and peculiar voice. But I have to agree partially with the bad reviews. 

The story itself doesn't get developed properly, at the end of the first part you feel like you heard a lot of mini stories but not linked up together, the script feels underwritten. 

I recognised a couple of the songs but I enjoyed and I was touched by many others, but I didn't appreciate going from one song to another without even a minute to digest it. 

At the end I'll recommend this play to everyone looking for something more similar to an experience, it gives a feeling of the '30 atmosphere, rather than looking for a good story. If you love Bob Dylan than that's another good reason to attend. 


If they'd done this as a concert, it would have been enjoyable: great singers, excellent arrangements. But the story is dull, the intermittent narration from the doctor is twee and the characters aren't very interesting. I loved most of the actors. They gave so much energy, but in the end, the script felt underwritten. The songs were squeezed into the story, but had the effect of halting, rather than advancing, the action. 

tastemaker

I've very much enjoyed Conor McPherson's previous plays,& was looking forward to this new one, however I was a bit apprehensive about added music from Bob Dylan.

The show turned out to be more of an experience than a play & I'm delighted to say I found it was a total & unexpected joy.

The great cast really work geII & the Bob Dylan music seemed to work just fine.

I left feeling I'd been to a memorable party, or maybe more of a memorable wake.


Well done Conor McPherson (The Weir) for trying something new: a great cast, delivering a rich story, boldly interspersed with Bob Dylan songs. But sadly, for me, it didn't really work. 


The songs (well-sung, with great live music accompaniment) regularly break the poignancy of the (otherwise very good) acting and (breaking a sentence gets quite annoying doesn't it) 30s-depression storyline. While on the other hand, the sanitised West-End musical versions of croaky Dylan originals turned them rather happy-clappy for my taste. And all this at the Old Vic?!  


Most telling was the audience  - who having booked months in advance to see 'the new Conor McPherson play' - mostly sat motionless with jaws aghast, at the razzmatazz and line-dancing unfolding in front of them. 


I suspect 'Girl from the North Country' will do OK for its run however, as the seats will get filled with clap-along mid-Western tourists, replacing traditional Old Vic theatregoers. The plot is safely unchallenging, with no attempt to address US nor modern poverty issues today, and there's lots of opportunity to happily clap along to the music, or applaud every time someone finishes a song. But the Old Vic better be ready with something meaty and thought-provoking to win back its traditional customer base. Unless of course this is Matthew Warchus' attempt to bring the Old Vic more into the West End. Which it certainly does.

Tastemaker

Girl from the North Country contains three or four intertwining stories. These are slight, only sketches really, but they are beautifully told, so that we care about the people we see on stage. It contains about twenty songs from Dylan's back catalogue. These are used, in almost an abstract way, to accentuate the drama rather than to move the narrative forward.

The prose and the songs complement each other very well. Given the quality of the cast, the strength of the acting is no surprise. The singing, orchestration and choreography are a revelation. 

I knew that Conor McPherson was a talented writer when I arrived, I had learned that Bob Dylan was a great songwriter by the time I left.


Tastemaker

This is a must-go for all Bob Dylan fans. However, for someone like myself who did not recognise many of the tunes, i didnt enjoy it as much as many of the older folk in the crowd. However, the voices were excellent and the quality of the performances was of the highest calibre, so any musical-loving folk would definitely still enjoy it. The cast was excellent and the set was simple, which fit the time and place the musical was set in. The end was intense and had me really anxious, which shows how believable the performance was on a whole.