Thursday, 3 August 2017

Theatre review: Girl From The North Country

If a Meat Loaf jukebox musical at the ENO seemed like the summer’s most eccentric bit of programming, how about a Bob Dylan jukebox musical at the Old Vic? Conor McPherson writes and directs Girl from the North Country, which I hadn’t initially planned to see but some very interesting casting convinced me otherwise. Cast mostly with actors-who-can-sing rather than predominantly musical theatre actors, I already knew the likes of Sheila Atim, Bronagh Gallagher, Jack Shalloo, Debbie Kurup, Michael Shaeffer and Karl Queensborough could sing, but there’s also a number of pleasant surprises in a show that, music aside, I didn’t quite know what to make of. Set in Depression-era Duluth, the story centres on a guest house run by Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds,) whose wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson) has early-onset dementia, and whose main relief from the financial and personal pressures he faces is an affair with one of his guests, Mrs Neilsen (Kurup.)

Defying the racism of their neighbours, Nick and Elizabeth adopted a black baby that was abandoned in their inn, and Marianne (Atim) is now 19 and pregnant with what might be a phantom pregnancy.

Worried that when the bank repossesses the inn his family will be left destitute, Nick is trying to marry Elizabeth off to elderly cobbler Mr Perry (Jim Norton,) but another offer comes from ex-boxer Joe Scott (Arinzé Kene,) who’s escaped from prison with dodgy Bible salesman Marlowe (Shaeffer,) who’s trying to blackmail visitors Mr and Mrs Burke (Stanley Townsend and Bronagh Gallagher) with his suspicions that their Lenny-from-Of Mice and Men* son (Shalloo) is wanted for murder. All this is narrated by the local doctor (Ron Cook,) who turns out to be a ghost because Conor McPherson. In other words this is the kind of story that’s usually described as a “sprawling epic,” or “Christ on a bike there’s a lot going on.”

The various story strands are regularly punctuated with Dylan songs, with instruments and arrangements in-keeping with the 1930s setting; there’s a four-strong band with the cast sometimes providing additional accompaniment, and the way the songs are integrated varies, with the characters sometimes breaking into song to illustrate their own story, while at others the whole cast comes in to provide a musical backdrop to the main action. Girl from the North Country taps into the seemingly large demographic of people who like Bob Dylan songs but just wish it wasn’t Bob Dylan singing them, and in among a story that’s way too busy for its own good the songs stand out as some of the best moments. Not particularly being a Dylan fan I was surprised to get so quickly drawn into it, with Sheila Atim’s first number “Tight Connection to My Heart”‡ making me a bit tearful all of a sudden.

I can’t fault the delivery of any of the songs, with Henderson being the biggest surprise, a big voice in her tiny frame, and as for her highly individual dance style as Elizabeth that’s… also a thing. But as quickly as I fell in love with the show I fell out again as McPherson doesn’t have enough variety of tone and style in his pocket to deal with the amount of plots and characters he’s set up. There’s simply too much going on to really delve into any one story or, by extension, care about it that much; and beautifully-done as the musical numbers are – and I do think I’d like there to be a cast recording - by the end there’s not enough variety to keep me as emotionally connected to them as I was in the first act.

Girl from the North Country by Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan is booking until the 7th of October at the Old Vic. Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Manuel Harlan.

*between this and The Ferryman, could characters who are clear references to Lenny from Of Mice and Men become an unlikely 2017 meme?

‡the Old Vic clearly agree with me that this is the show's highlight, as they've released it as a promo video:

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