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A CurtainUp London Review
Girl From the North Country
"May you build a ladder to the stars
And climb on every rung
May you stay
Forever young . . .

May you grow up to be righteous
May you grow up to be true
May you always know the truth
And see the lights surrounding you"

&mdash Lyric from "Forever Young"
Girl From the North Country
Arinze Kene as Joe Scott and company (Photo: Manuel Harlan)
When Irish playwright Conor McPherson was approached by Bob Dylan's record company to write the book for a staging using any of Bob Dylan's songs, he wasn't immediately convinced that the iconic folk singer's material would make the kind of musical that could be envisaged. But soon McPherson had an idea to base the play with songs around a boarding house in Dylan's birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota with the various people who lived there and passed through, "the rolling stones", set in the Great Depression of the 1930s. Dylan liked the concept and 40 of his albums were sent to McPherson giving him permission to use any of the songs he liked.

The resulting play obviously does not fit the defining identification of musicals where each song advances the plot, nor is it really a musical devised around a singer or group's back list. Instead McPherson has written a play full of characters who express themselves with some of Dylan's songs, many of these lesser known.

Many of the cast have worked with McPherson before and are from his native Ireland. These are prestigious actors, most of whom I haven't heard sing before but who have surprisingly good and strong voices. The playwright also directs.

The four central characters live in the boarding house in the eponymous North Country, a town near the Canadian border and on the shores of Lake Superior. Nick Laine (Ciaran Hinds) is fighting mounting debts and the woes of his manic wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson), whose early onset dementia makes her a loose cannon among the visitors to their home. Their son Gene (Sam Reid) would like to be a writer but has yet to find employment in a world dominated by the joblessness of the 1930s. Gene's former girlfriend Katherine (Claudia Jolly) is leaving to work in Boston and is engaged to another. A black child left behind by her mother in the boarding house and adopted by Elizabeth and Nick. Marianne Laine (Sheila Atim) is now grown up and pregnant but we do not know who the father of her baby is.

Living in the boarding house is Mrs Neilsen (Debbie Kurup) a widow waiting for her husband's railroad shares to be sorted out and who has grown fond of Nick; also Mr and Mrs Burke (Bronagh Gallagher and Stanley Townsend) who are staying with their disabled son Elias (Jack Shalloo). Mr Burke's business has failed and he is running away from insolvency.

Two men who arrive in the early hours looking for accommodation are the dubious Reverend Marlowe (Michael Shaeffer) and ex-boxer Joe Scott (Arinze Kene). Charaters also include two local residents, arethe town doctor, Dr Walker, played by Ron Cook and the aged and widowed shoe seller Mr Perry (Jim Norton) who is offering to marry Marianne to provide her and her baby with a home.

There is much to like in this gentle play about the characters hit by the depression. Shirley Henderson as Elizabeth is a slight, short figure but dominates much of the action sitting with her knees apart and interrupting with bizarre, sexual gestures that embarrass her husband and audience alike. Her casting feels slightly strange because although she is 51, her diminutive size makes her appear much younger. She gets to sing the show's final number "Forever Young" and she can really belt it out.

Sheila Atim as Marianne sings "Tight Connection to My Heart — Has Anyone Seen My Love?" with its pretty melody. "Slow Train Coming" performed by the men is a lovely bluesy song and for the first time has us see the curious movement of the women as the backing group— with stylised action, some of them playing tambourines. Gene and Katherine sing a duet "I Want You" and Dylan's well known "Like a Rolling Stone" rounds off the first act. Many of the songs are lesser known, with no inclusion of Dylan's greatest hits to draw in the crowds. However, Jack Shalloo's Elias is freed from disability to gorgeously sing "Duquesne Whistle" in a show stopping moment, although we may be confused where he is. The onstage band are added to by actor drummers in the cast and I was impressed by the singing quality of the ensemble cast.

Rae Smith's set shows the authentic interior of the boarding house dining room using projected backdrops of Lake Superior and views of a straight road punctuated with telegraph poles. 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.

Girl From the North Country is a play with songs where you care about these people facing the worst economic factors of the depression. It is almost the antithesis of a glitzy musical and all the stronger for it. Though a show with a slow burn that engages us in the individual stories and Dylan's evocative songs fit this era well. The theme is one we can relate to with the recent economic downturn in prosperity and the message heartfelt.

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Girl From the North Country
Music and Lyrics by Bob Dylan
Written and Directed by Conor McPherson
Starring: Ciaran Hinds, Ron Cook, Sheila Atim, Shirley Henderson, Debbie Kurup, Sam Reid, Stanley Townsend, Jim Norton, Arinze Kene, Claudia Jolly, Jack Shalloo, Michael Shaeffer, Bronagh Gallagher
With: Tom Peters, Karl Queensborough, Kirsty Malpass
Design: Rae Smith
Orchestrator, Arranger and Musical Supervisor: Simon Hale
Musical Director: Alan Berry
Movement: Lucy Hind
Lighting Design: Mark Henderson
Sound Design: Simon Baker
Running time: Two hours 30 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 0844 871 7628
Booking to 7th October 2017
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 27th July 2017 performance at The Old Vic, The Cut, SE1 8NB (Rail/Tube: Waterloo)
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