A West End musical based entirely on the songs of Bob Dylan has to rank quite highly in the list of things that will never exist. And yet Girl from the North Country is that very thing. After a short run at the Old Vic it has now transferred with near sell-out success for what is described as a limited run at the Noel Coward Theatre. That very close to sold-outness would, one would like to think, ensure it has a longer life to come somewhere else. Despite weaving a story around a single artist’s music it’s not your typical juke-box musical – it’s not your typical anything.
Set in a boarding house in Duluth in 1934 it features a diverse set of characters – a drug using doctor, a man cheating on his wife – who is slipping into dementia, a pregnant adopted daughter who doesn’t know or won’t tell who the father is, a frustrated writer who can’t sell his stories, an untrustworthy bible seller and a boxer wrongly locked up for a crime he did not commit. Or, maybe did commit. And there’s more – intertwining stories of drunkenness, rage, love and total despair. This is not your typical juke-box musical. In fact let’s drop that term entirely, Girl from the North Country is very much more in the mould of a play with songs in it, and few indeed of the songs are ones that the non-fan of Bob Dylan would be likely to recognise
Conor McPherson who both wrote and directs the play was given a free rein to pick from anything Dylan had written – and he chose songs from relatively unpopular albums such as Infidels, through genuinely unpoplar albums such as Saved, and even from Empire Burlesque – an album that regularly competes with a couple of others to generally be regarded as Bob’s worst. Yeah, sure – only Tight Connection to my Heart is a great song and it just happens to be on Empire Burlesque. And, actually, the truth is that the religious albums are full of superb songs, Pressing On didn’t make the cut although McPherson wanted it, but Slow Train did, and so did What can I do for you? It’s strange, but not that unusual, to hear these songs from other voices, but the reshaping to fit the play – with songs cutting across each other as different characters express different emotions, can be really powerful. Even cute little I want you takes on a different feel as it becomes a duet between parted would-be lovers.
The uncluttered staging of Girl from the North Country heightens the closed in intimacy of many lives rubbing against each other and helps to build the tension. Having the band on stage – and with cast members floating in and out of the band to add drums and keyboards – is also clever and effective staging. The couple of set piece dance numbers are both impressive and fit in seamlessly. Girl from the North Country also has a great ensemble cast – no real weak spots; Debbie Kurup is hugely impressive as Mrs Nielsen, Finbar Lynch gives a great snake-oil salesman turn as Reverend Marlowe, and Arinze Kene is perfect as boxer Joe Scott. Ciaran Hinds as Nick Laine the boarding house owner and Shirley Henderson as his wife Elizabeth negotiate perhaps the most diverse and difficult plot lines to a satisfying conclusion.
Did an all-singing all-dancing Bob Dylan show ever seem likely? Still no. Does Girl from the North Country work ? It surely does. At times it feels a little – just a little – like the Depression-era chapter of I’m Not There. Dylan is ever present in the songs, and the story is the kind of convoluted tale he’d stretch over seven minutes on a good day. The run finishes on the 24th of March, some tickets are left at all prices – perfectly reasonable seats are available for £20, and go up to £100 in the prime seating in the stalls.