Girl from the North Country by Conor Mcpherson
At The Old Vic
2nd September, 2017
‘We ain’t got no net to catch us’
Bob Dylan’s team approached Conor McPherson to see if he would be interested in basing a production around the songbook. At first he wasn’t keen then as always, an idea germinated. Dylan liked the concept and 40 of his albums were sent to McPherson saying that he could use any of the songs he liked. It is, says McPherson in a programme note, a ‘conversation between the songs and the story’ and what a conversation it is! Just spellbinding and haunting. It is an unusual musical which functions as the soul of the characters.
There is a Steinbeckian overtone to Conor Mcpherson’s play set in the Dustbowl at the height of the Great Depression. We find ourselves in a guesthouse in Duluth, Minnesota (Dylan’s hometown) in 1934. There’s a boxer on the run from trouble, a dodgy bible salesman, a widow waiting for her inheritance, a couple whose simple-minded son is more than they can handle, a kindly doctor, an elderly shoe-shop owner, and so on. Ciaran Hinds), and his wife Elizabeth, who is succumbing to dementia, though in Shirley Henderson’s hands, it’s the sexiest, cheekiest dementia you’ll ever come across. Henderson’s Elizabeth is very edgy. She pulls at her shirt and whirls vaguely about the stage. It is only when Elizabeth sings that she is fully alive and in control. Petit as Henderson is, she commands our attention. When Elizabeth stands on a chair and booms with all her might. “Forever Young” we share her husband and her hopeless future.
And so the production touches not just on personal relationships but the grinding hardships of the Great Depression and the period’s brutal racism. With empty pockets and bulging promises of rent to be paid next week, they float in and out of the gloomy parlour. Sometimes they stop to chat, others lurk in solitary corners. After group meals, perhaps the only time where their days have some sort of routine, they all dance to tinny music crackling from the wireless. This is the only joy they have.
Nick and Elizabeth have a grown-up white son, aspiring writer Gene (Sam Reid), and an adopted black daughter Marianne (Sheila Atim), who is pregnant to a man whose identity she refuses to reveal. Also passing through the house are various drifters and grifters including Nick’s clandestine lover (Debbie Kurup), a slippery Bible salesman (Michael Shaeffer), a former boxing champ recently sprung from an undeserved jail term (Arinze Kene), a haunted older couple (Stanley Townsend and Bronagh Gallagher) with a mentally challenged adult son (Jack Shalloo), and more. On chorus duty is the Stetson-wearing, amiable Doctor Walker (Ron Cook), who breaks the fourth wall as he shares a retro stand-microphone to introduce these troubled folk.
A lot of the action unfolds in Rae Smith’s authentic interior of the boarding house dining room , where a table sits in the middle of the vast Old Vic stage, surrounded by sweeping, empty, black space. It is that containment which echoes the wounded state of those on stage. Often, when someone is singing, an accompanying group will be seen at the rear of the stage in silhouette which adds to the sense of being in a small town.
There is much to like in this gentle yet busy play. The lovely musical arrangements by Simon Hale, together with the breathtaking talent of the performers, reveal how many of Dylan’s lesser-known songs possess the enduring magic. What lingers into the walk back to the station are Sheila Atim’s “Tight Connection to My Heart” and “Has Anyone Seen My Love?” together with Henderson’s “Like A Rolling Stone”. The play’s ending is sad, but not hopelessly and fashionably bleak.