Girl from the North Country Old Vic Theatre, London SE1 5/5
THIS freewheelin’ new piece from playwright Conor McPherson is a drama with songs and since these are the lyrical and gritty outpourings of Bob Dylan, diehard fans may want to brace themselves for what’s to come.
Don’t expect any “greatest hits” compilation. Instead, let yourself be drawn into the dreamscape of McPherson’s storytelling, with its dark tales of child-ghosts, apparitions and his classic theme — the aching loneliness of the spurned lover.
In this Depression-era narrative of lost souls and found loves, the action feeds the lyrics with even greater melancholy, yearning and regret than you’d think possible.
I Want You, sung at first separately then as a duet by star-damned lovers, is one of the few songs delivered by one character to another. Most of the 20 numbers lure us in with an emotional charge rarely experienced in musical theatre.
There’s a lot of resonance between this 1934 setting and our own a-changin’ times — fear of even greater poverty, ordinary folk betrayed by politicians, a black man arrested for another’s crime.
The boxer Joe Scott (Arinze Kene) sings Hurricane — “If you’re black, you might as well not show up on the scene” — and the pathos here is his absence of anger or outrage. This is just how things are.
The flophouse in Duluth, Minnesota — a homage, because this was Dylan’s birthplace — provides a limbo-like refuge for an escaped convict, a smarmy Bible salesman, a warring couple with their disabled son and a widow in love with the wrong man.
Its owner Nick (Ciaran Hinds) has tried stoicism and is failing. His son Gene (Sam Reid), a Hemingway manque, writes less than he drinks.
His adopted daughter Marianne (Shelia Ati, both vulnerable and steely) says she’s pregnant. His sprite-like wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson, never less than superb) flails in her dementia, her disinhibition acting as a pinprick of bathos for others’ pomposity.
They create what is a luminous experience, worthy of the standing ovation at the end. Just go and don’t think twice — this is so much more than alright.