Girl from the North Country review

Theatre, Drama
Recommended
4 out of 5 stars
4 out of 5 stars
(28user reviews)
 (© 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)

Conor McPherson’s dark drama built around the songs of Bob Dylan transfers to the West End

Will Bob Dylan ever stop rolling? Last year he accepted the Nobel Prize for Literature. Now he’s written a West End musical. Well, kind of. He’s co-credited on this new play by Conor McPherson, which weaves excerpts of Dylan’s music together to tell a fictional story from Duluth, Minnesota, 1934 – the place of Dylan’s birth, seven years before its occurrence.

It’s an interesting concept. But what’s truly thrilling about the execution of this poignant but rambling show are Dylan’s songs  and the way they sound and feel when sung in a totally different context by some of the most nerve-tingling singers I’ve ever seen on stage. 

The action takes place in a boarding house. Times are tough; work is very hard to come by and lynchings happen from time to time. Nick, the guy who runs it (Ciaran Hinds, wonderful) is breaking under the burden of his mortgage, his demented wife, his boozy writer son (shades of Tennessee Williams) and his adopted black daughter (Sheila Atim), who has fallen mysteriously pregnant and absolutely does not want to be married off to her father’s elderly shopkeeper pal. 

Passing through are a widow, a boxer on the run, a dodgy bible salesman and a couple with a learning-disabled son who doesn’t know his own strength (shades of John Steinbeck). A hard rain is gonna fall on all of them.

That’s a lot of stories to tell and a lot of American literature to reference and – especially in the second half – it all feels a bit sketchy and unfocused. But the relationship between the characters and Dylan’s music is anything but. It’s poignant and stirring and totally fresh to see ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ voiced by a middle-aged woman – the electrifying Shirley Henderson as Nick’s wife Elizabeth – who’s losing her inhibitions and her mind. Or the – IMO hokey and forgettable minor ballad – ‘I Want You’, slowed down and revealed as a sexy, aching, unrequited duet for Nick’s son Gene and yet another character, the girl who’s leaving him for a guy with a real job. 

Props to Simon Hale for gorgeous orchestration, and to every single member of the cast. It’s a shame that the play and the music don’t quite come together into something absolutely wonderful – part of the problem is that this wandering, intimate show doesn’t sit comfortably in the conventional set-up of a West End theatre; but mostly the play and the music start a conversation that they just can’t finish. Still, there are moments that are so fierce or beautiful that they’ll make the hairs on the back of your neck stand up  and send you out into the night googling Dylan’s back catalogue.

By: Caroline McGinn

Posted:

Average User Rating

4 / 5

Rating Breakdown

  • 5 star:12
  • 4 star:7
  • 3 star:5
  • 2 star:2
  • 1 star:1
LiveReviews|28
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1 of 1 found helpful
tastemaker

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.


I can see why this show is so lauded & has been a successful transfer from the Old Vic to the West End. This is as far from a jukebox musical as you can get. All the songs feel very organic & are sung beautifully by a diverse & talented cast. Special mention for the incredible acapella harmonies too. This almost feels like a musical Coen brothers film with quirky characters in rural USA. Snippets of iconic songs (Feel my Love, Like a rolling stone...) remind you what a masterful song writer Bob Dylan is. A real classy production.

Tastemaker

This is the best show I have seen. ever.  Going into the theatre I did not know what to expect but knew it would not disappoint with such an exceptional cast (10 points for noticing Bishop Brennan from Father Ted in this show) but I did not expect to be so enthralled with the emotional story and the way in which the songs were weaved into the plot.  It did not feel like a musical as the words in the songs felt so relevant and poignant with their placement and the way in which they were sang.  I will be going back to see this show over and over until I can't anymore! 


For those who might be worried about it being purely for Bob Dylan music fans, I did not go in knowing the Dylan back catalogue and it did not change the way in which the show moved me.  Amazing performances all around and I hope this does not go anywhere soon but finds a firm place as a long running show on the West End. 


Fabulous show,fantastic reworking of Dylan songs,cast and band were superb. Special mention for Shirley Henderson's achingly moving performance.

tastemaker

Girl from the North Country is an intense, brooding piece of theatre. Weaving in the stories of visitors to the guest house that forms the main setting of the play, it seeks to explore the struggles of poverty and discrimination characterising the era. And, of course, does so to a soundscape of Bob Dylan's music.

Before going, I wasn't sure how the use of Dylan's music could feel anything other than contrived, but the constant, fluid movement of the cast and props, mimicking the comings and goings of the guest house, means that the songs just seem to ebb and flow naturally. The folk and blues numbers, performed beautifully by the cast and on-stage band, feel as if they were written for the play, rather than re-written from existing music.

The whole show is beautifully melancholy, though the end has a faint sense of hope to it. The characters have depth and believability, and the design is appropriately naturalistic. The music is what carries it, though, but even if you aren't familiar with Dylan, it's worth catching. Well recommended.

tastemaker

Girl From The North Country play, currently showing in Old Vic. It's a family drama happening in Minnesota during the era of the Great Depression in America. Emotional storyline, great Bob Dylan music. The narrator plays brilliantly, so is Elizabeth, Nick's wife who is suffering from dementia. The only slight criticism, the play is somehow undecided between a musical and a drama and interchanges between two genres aren't always connected. Nevertheless, the play is very well played, very emotional. Highly recommended.

tastemaker

This is a sombre play. Set in 1934 in Duluth, the characters gather in or pass through the boarding house run by Nick and his ailing wife, Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson). As the characters become more rounded, we realise they all have a story, often depressing. The choreography is subtle,understated and effective. But what brings this play to life are the Bob Dylan arrangements . This cast can sing and they are nearly all given their special moment in the limelight on a usually dimly-lit stage. Considering the dark and heavy nature of this play, the time (over two hours), passed quickly.

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.

tastemaker

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.