Girl From The North Country
The Company of Girl From The North Country, (Dublin and UK Tour). Photo by Johan Persson
From going electric to accepting the Nobel Prize for Literature, Bob Dylan has consistently upended expectations. With Girl From The North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson, featuring a back catalogue of songs by Dylan, he risks doing so again. Sounding less Dylan so much as Disney, a pristine polish sees Dylan's Woody Guthrie textures sacrificed to a Glee like shimmer. Yet if Girl From The North Country is not without its issues, it often turns them into strengths. A little like Dylan himself.
Justina Kehinde in Girl From The North Country, Dublin and UK TourPhoto by Johan Persson
Duluth, Minnesota, 1934. Depression era America. A struggling guesthouse on the verge of closure, as much a honky tonk as a home. Here conmen Christians, confusing racists, and cruelty towards the innocent all abide under the one roof. In this liminal, transitional village a motley crew of Americans temporarily co-exist as the clock ticks down. An extended, dysfunctional family that includes a healthy representation of Black Americans. Announcing from the get-go that Girl From The North Country is less interested in history and more interested in metaphor. References to It Happened One Night establishing not just a time and place but hinting at its Shangri-La, movie like framing. The whole looking as if The Grapes of Wrath had been directed by Frank Capra. McPherson's tale reinforcing the American myth as much, if not more than it subverts it.
Frances McNamme and James Staddon in Girl From The North Country, (Dublin and UK Tour). Photo by Johan Persson
Like Our Town, Girl From The North Country views the American macro through its small town micro. Doctor Walker (Chris McHallem), keeper of the town's souls and secrets, sets up introductions and establishes expectations. Proprietor Nick Laine, (Colin Connor), in the tradition of The Honeymooners and The Simpsons, is the not too smart, loudmouth husband, strutting about like Family Guy's Peter Griffin. His wife, Elizabeth, (Frances McNamee) already driven out of her mind. Work shy Gene (Gregor Milne), clearly from the shallow end of Daddy's already shallow gene pool, aspires to be a writer the way everyone does when perpetually drunk. Then there's adopted black girl Marianne (Justina Kehinde), who Nick wants to set up in an arranged marriage. Yet the arrival of mystery man, Joe Scott (Joshua C Jackson), presents new possibilities for the troubled Marianne. Throw in Nick's lover, Mrs Neilsen (Keisha Amponsa Banson), a dodgy Reverend Marlowe (Eli James), a girlfriend, Katherine (Eve Norris), wanting more from life, and a head nod to Steinbeck's Lenny in the shape of Elias Burke (Ross Carswell), and the essential ingredients are put into play so it all can come to a head after Thanksgiving. The final image never really convincing. Still, faux final feel good is better than no final feel good in musical theatre, and it does re-establish the status quo. Well, it is an American tale after all.
The Company of Girl From The North Country, Dublin and UK TourPhoto by Johan Persson
Throughout, there's a sense of McPherson's script trying to shoehorn Dylan into the tradition of Steinbeck, Faulkner, O'Neill and Williams, whom McPherson doesn't borrow from so much as shamelessly plunder. Yet it often backfires, feeling like spin more than substance. Fuel for those furious at Dylan's Nobel Prize for Literature. Like the shows impeccable production values, Dylan's songs are given a youthful, family friendly, musical theatre makeover. And that, like it or not, proves spectacular. Simple, pared back arrangements, or rather re-arrangements by McPherson and Simon Hale, prove remarkable. Live musicians onstage revealing the robustness and richness of the music, its infinite malleability, sounding as rich and relevant as it was twenty, thirty, sixty years ago. The longevity isn't fluke. Dylan is the master, his lyrics enduring, his music eternal. The thirteen strong cast helping bring the songs to life. Performatively and musically, Jackson proves brilliant, as does Kehinde, along with Norris, McHallem and Banson. Frances McNamee as Elizabeth, the madwoman escaped from her attic, is a testament that some indeed sing Dylan better than Dylan. McNamee, who could sing Moby Dick in mangled gibberish and you'd still watch and listen, is a presence of mesmerising intensity, flowing yet ever focused, giving a performance impossible to ignore.
Frances McNamee in Girl From The North Country (Dublin and UK Tour) Photo by Johan Persson
Whatever your expectations of Girl From The North Country, park them at the door. Girl From The North Country is a thing in itself and succeeds on its own terms. You might not always like those terms, but they coalesce into something with heart and an ease uniquely its own. Its lack of fluster, like a Dylan concert, lends a nonchalance to proceedings, establishing a gentle pace even as some moments can seem overly histrionic. If there’s not always enough meat to sink your teeth into, it's likely because the narrative skeleton is missing a few bones. And, for some, key Dylan songs that didn't make the wish list. Get over it. Enjoy the riches in front of you. Dylan's enduringly brilliant classics prove a soulful joy, and are beautifully executed.
Girl From The North Country, written and directed by Conor McPherson, with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan, produced by Tristan Baker & Charlie Parsons for Runaway Entertainment, Steven Lappin, Sony Music Entertainment UK, Playing Field, David Mirvish, Dianne Roberts and The Old Vic, runs at 3Olympia Theatre until July 30, after which it goes on tour across the UK.
For more information, visit 3Olympia.