THE momentum of Conor McPherson and Bob Dylan’s moving play with music, Girl from the North Country, was cut short by the pandemic. Those who managed to see the show at the Old Vic in 2017 have been waiting for a revival ever since.
Now the 24-venue tour comes to Bath, and once again stuns and delights its audience. The provenance of the show is pure Dylan – known for his unpredictable approach as well as his mastery of language and astonishing repertoire of songs. He never allowed his songs to be used for shows (until he sold his catalogue in 2020), but out of the blue, in 2016, his “people” contacted Irish playwright McPherson and asked if he might like to use any of them in a play. You really couldn’t say no, could you.
The result is a moving, brilliantly theatrical, absolutely human story, set in Dylan’s birthtown of Duluth during the Great Depression, in a boarding house, which allows a panoply of characters to enact scenes from their lives. Like all great American literature, it has its stock characters. Like the Woody Guthrie songs that inspired the young songwriter, it is deeply rooted in the everyday concerns of everyday people. You WILL identify with some of them.
The Laine family, lonely fraught father Nick, lazy drunken son Gene, adopted, and pregnant, daughter Marianne and loveless, insightful and unchained Elizabeth, sinking further into dementia, plod through each day to survive to the next, beset by mounting debts and letters from the bank. Their “guests”, a widow waiting vainly for the arrival of her inheritance, two runaway convicts and a once-wealthy couple with a man-child whose secret they are trying to hide, gather with neighbours whose woes are shed for one night of Thanksgiving celebration. These are Great American setpiece scenes, and they are what reality REALLY means.
Conor McPherson’s brilliant direction, Rae Smith’s sets and costumes, Lucy Hind’s movement and Mark Henderson’s lighting bring this intense story to vivid life, with a background of songs we know and some we don’t know, drawn from every decade of Dylan’s working life, seemingly written for the moment and with their extraordinarily descriptive lyrics fresh washed for the occasion.
It’s an ensemble piece, with a 19-strong company of singing, dancing actors, an on-stage four-piece band and busy follow-spot operators to enable everyone to have their moment.
For Bath audiences, the return of Frances McNamee, remembered for her contributions to the early seasons of Laurence Boswell at the Ustinov, is particularly powerful. Unrecognisably, she plays Elizabeth, whose decline is the wallpaper of the story, and whose plangent songs fill the theatre. Her adopted daughter Marianne is played by Justina Kehinde, with a tentative hope forcing its way through the despair of youthful experience.
It’s a visual spectacle, an auditory feast, a theatrical treasure chest and a wake-up call to the soul, and it’s hard to imagine a more stunning production. See Girl from the North Country at Bath until Saturday, at Plymouth from 1st to 5th November or at Bristol Hippodrome from 30th January to 4th February as part of the lengthy tour.
Photographs by Johan Persson