‘Girl from the North Country’ review
Time Out says
Conor McPherson’s haunting Bob Dylan musical returns for another West End stint
‘The Girl from the North Country’ goes west again, as Conor McPherson’s highly acclaimed musical, using the back catalogue of legendary American singer-songwriter Bob Dylan, opens at the Gielgud Theatre. This follows the previous West End transfer of the original Old Vic production in 2017. Once again, it’s performed and sung with electric energy.
McPherson’s book is a haunting slice of Depression-era Americana that draws not only on Dylan’s songbook but finds inspiration in the sad, vivid pages of authors like John Steinbeck and other chroniclers of the wrenching upheaval of the 1930s in the US. It takes place in 1934, in Duluth, Minnesota – Dylan’s birthplace, but seven years before he was born.
Nick Laine (Donald Sage Mackay) is trying to keep his failing boarding house afloat in a sea of debt, while resentfully looking after his dementia-suffering wife Elizabeth (Katie Brayben), as well their adopted daughter, Marianne (Gloria Obianyo), who is unmarried and pregnant, and Gene (Colin Bates), their alcoholic son. The Laines’s crumbling home has become a place of last resort for America’s outcast and abandoned.
McPherson understatedly explores the cross-currents of poverty, racism and mental illness at a time when deep, ugly social divisions were laid painfully bare by economic hardship. His writing is both blunt and poignant, weaving together disparate lives with tough, twisted threads. Shaq Taylor’s ex-con and ex-boxer Joe Scott and Marianne are united by the bigotry that will always trip their step as people of colour. Obianyo, in particular, sings with gut-wrenching forlornness.
Against this backdrop, it would be easy for the entire production to descend into a kind of numbing, unremitting misery. But McPherson is better than that. His characters know how to laugh as well as cry. In Brayben’s wonderfully physical performance, Elizabeth’s fragments of lucidity cut sharply through the bullshit. She’s funny and spiky. She sees through the shadowy Reverend Marlowe, Finbar Lynch’s darkly glinting figure of hypocrisy and smiling venom.
And all of this is held tenderly, lovingly and angrily together by Dylan’s music as the emotional swell to Lucy Hind’s choreography. From the iconic ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ to the gospel overtones of his unloved born-again Christian period in the ’80s, the songs – as arranged by Simon Hale – feel liberated from the incessant analysis that always accompanies them. They’re beautiful, complicated odes to the crisscrossing routes of love and hurt through the dusty corners of bruising lives.
|Venue name:||Gielgud Theatre|
|Transport:||Rail/Tube: Charing Cross; Tube: Piccadilly Circus|
|Price:||£15-£127.50. Runs 2hr 30min|
Users say (28)
Average User Rating
4 / 5
- 5 star:12
- 4 star:7
- 3 star:5
- 2 star:2
- 1 star:1
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.
Fabulous show,fantastic reworking of Dylan songs,cast and band were superb. Special mention for Shirley Henderson's achingly moving performance.
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.
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.
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.
Snap up exclusive discounts in London
Time Out's handpicked deals — hurry, they won't be around for long...