Girl from the North Country

Conor McPherson, music and lyrics by Bob Dylan
Tristan Baker and Charlie Parsons for Runaway Entertainment and The Old Vic
Sheffield Lyceum

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Joshua C Jackson as Joe Scott in Girl from the North Country Credit: Johan Persson
The Company of Girl from the North Country Credit: Johan Persson
Justina Kehinde as Marianne in Girl from the North Country Credit: Johan Persson

On a short visit to London in 2017, I wandered into the Old Vic and saw an earlier version of the play. Seeing it again at the Lyceum, I am intrigued by how different this is from the usual diet of touring musicals which fill local theatres and put bums on seats.

Set in the Great Depression, Conor McPherson’s narrative, reminiscent of Steinbeck, introduces a group of impoverished and needy people who get together in a cheap hotel. This includes Elizabeth, the proprietor’s wife, in the violent stage of dementia and Elias, who is retarded and may have committed a rape. Other characters are without hope: pregnant Marianne whose lover has deserted her, Scott the black boxer who was imprisoned for a crime he didn’t commit, and so many other characters whose lives will soon implode because of debt and impending penury.

What makes this such a startling theatrical experience is that McPherson has bound the episodes together with songs from Bob Dylan’s huge catalogue. Often, the lyrics are irrelevant to what has gone before, but the power of the music and the insistence of repeated refrains makes the audience dig deep for relevance. Items like "I want you", "Like a Rolling Stone" and "Slow Train" create a mood which deepens understanding.

McPherson also directs. So much to appreciate here. The staging is simple, effective and unobtrusive. 2D flats are lowered to present scene changes, with cast members removing more solid items while the action continues. Lighting is superb, often showing the assembled cast or dance routines as silhouettes against a lit background. Beautiful and evocative. Projected images of Dylan’s birthplace in Duluth, Minnesota bring credibility to the setting.

Reading the play before seeing it, the text suggests that Frances McNamee as Elizabeth would have little more to do than give a realistic presentation of a woman with advanced dementia. In fact, in the second act, her performance becomes pivotal as she dances with and inter-relates with other members of the cast in dream-like sequences.

There are so many performances to applaud: Justina Kehinde as Marianne; Joshua C Jackson as Scott; Maria Omakinwa as Mrs Neilsen. Every member of the cast commands the stage with authority, delivers the songs with verve or pathos, contributes to the dancing and some even play an instrument. The small, versatile band directed by Andrew Corcoran breathes life into Dylan’s music and sets the foot a-tapping.

This is not a musical but a play with musical episodes drawn from Bob Dylan’s vast back catalogue. In his introduction to the play text, Conor McPherson suggests "that many of Dylan’s songs can be sung at any time, by anyone in any situation, and still make sense and resonate with that particular place and person and time." Because the songs are such powerful evocations of emotional states, they bring an extra significance and depth to the unfolding of the dramatic narrative not usually found in musicals designed to entertain.

Reviewer: Velda Harris