Conor McPherson’s Latest Melo(dic)drama Is Built Around 20 Songs By Bob Dylan
Take the back catalogue of a 20th century counter-culture musical icon, add an award-winning playwright and you don’t necessarily get your run-of-the-mill juke box musical.
Old Vic artistic director Matthew Warchus explains in the programme foreword, that Girl from The North Country isn’t really a musical, but a singing-and-speaking collaboration across time. He wants to call it a melodrama, with ‘melo’ meaning melody or music, which is a recognised secondary meaning of the word. However, he concedes that its modern primary use, describing sensational drama with exaggerated characters, is very different. He, therefore, likens this production to the 1986 TV series The Singing Detective, in that the songs included may not further the narrative or coincide with what’s happening in the foreground of the story, yet the songs nevertheless connect on a non-literal level. Singing, after all, gives voice to the soul.
Herein lies the problem with Girl From The North Country, as I see it. It needs explaining because the production doesn’t appear to make a strong enough account of itself in performance.
We start with Debbie Kurup as the widow Mrs Nielsen singing Sign On The Window, as her lover, debt-ridden boarding house owner Nick Laine (Ciáran Hinds), preps the dining room for the evening meal. Various musical instruments are positioned about the stage (including a fabulous drum kit). His gloriously demented wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson) sits nearby, morphing between child and provocateur by turns. We meet his out-of-work, hard-drinking, aspiring writer of a son Gene (Sam Reid) and Doc Walker (Ron Cook), who also narrates. We hear about Sheila Atim’s Marianne, the Laine’s African-American daughter, adopted after being abandoned in one of their rooms. She is 4 or so months pregnant and tight-lipped about who the father is. She is, however, clear that he’s not ‘here’. She is introduced to us with a heartbreaking solo in a crystal clear, beautifully controlled voice with the emotional Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love?), matching the accomplished Kurup.
This is Dylan’s birthplace, Duluth, Minnesota, in 1934. Lives are buckling under the weight of the Great Depression and Laine is desperate to see his children taken care of. His plans include a job for his son and the marriage of his daughter to Mr. Perry (Jim Norton as a local man old enough to be her grandfather), as well as the intent to open a proper hotel with Mrs Nielsen once some money she has been expecting is released to her. As the Dylan numbers rack up, we meet struggling buinessman and debt collector Mr Burke (Stanley Townsend), his wife the Mrs. (Bronagh Gallagher), their special needs son Elias (Jack Shalloo), Gene’s ex-girlfriend Katherine Draper (Claudia Jolly), and Karl Queensborough as one of two ensemble characters (Tom Peters, the other) – neighbours and possibly patrons who frequent the house.
As the evening draws in, two travellers arrive looking for shelter – bible salesman the Rev. Marlowe (Michael Shaeffer) and Arinzé Kene’s ex-con boxer, Joe Scott. Queensborough and Kene, along with Kurup and Atim showcase that wonderful combination of soulful voices with the careful control of musical theatre technique. In fact, all but the characters inhabited by Hinds, Cook and Townsend sing, and generally turn in musical performances of a high standard. Henderson, (Bridge’s friend Jude in Bridget Jones’s Diary, 2004, and Moaning Myrtle in Harry Potter and The Goblet of Fire, 2005) has been astounding everyone with a singing talent apparently kept hidden for all these years (though, listening to Moaning Myrtle, there was a hint). She gives a wonderful rendition of Forever Young which closes out the show. Along with members of the cast, musicians were Alan Berry, Charlie Brown, Pete Callard and Don Richardson.
It is not a feel-good evening out, but it certainly leaves you with an impression of the hardship and the many hard luck stories of the time, which ended in despair and tragedy and so very few of which ended well. You will also leave with an appreciation for the song-writing talent of Dylan.
That said, the production didn’t really feel like a coherent story to me, despite it being punctuated by Doc narrating the fate of the Laines. It felt more like a series of vignettes captured over a short, defined time period – some of which jarred, like the fate of Elias Burke. That’s all well and good, except that you must also consider that to perform many of the songs, the character was effectively removed from the action, to a period mic stand, with various cast members grouped around another singing backup or harmonies, occasionally wielding percussion instruments and dancing in limited formation, like The Pips. The two ensemble characters and Katherine, none of whom seemed to serve any particular purpose in a cast of 20, had solos. Great for them, but odd. Come the interval in this 2½ hour (inclusive) production, I wasn’t sure I cared enough about any of them. Unfortunately, that also includes Marianne and her ever so slightly indolent story arc.
I wasn’t aware Dylan wrote songs of love or yearning. I thought he wrote mainly songs of protest and social commentary. McPherson, who had never written a musical theatre piece before, was approached by Dylan’s record company with the invitation to use the icon’s music in a theatre show. He decided to ‘free the songs from the burden of relevance for our generation and make them timeless.’ Sending them an outline of the idea, Dylan approved and agreed to release any songs McPherson required for use. He chose some great ones from 1963 – 2012 (none from the 90s or 00s) – specifically those with more musical development containing verse, a bridge and chorus, a middle eight, etc., and describes the finished work as ‘a conversation between the songs and the story.‘ He says that the ‘actors and musicians play performers who are broadcasting the story...’ and songs are ‘… sung into microphones to the audience, rather than by one character to another.’ Yet, this is not set up like Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion radio show. As I have observed before, sometimes use of the fourth wall just doesn’t work for me, when it takes you out of the story’s flow. Whilst pathos might have been generally preserved there was, for me, an underlying feeling of bathos and lapse in mood.
This production is a testament to the degree of latitude an award-winning record can earn you in terms of quality cast, quality venue and theatrical run, since it might have served McPherson well to have taken note of two other pieces TBB has reviewed previously. The first, What’s It All About? Bacharach Re-imagined at the Menier Chocolate Factory (3rd Jul – 5th Sept 2015), which then transferred to the Criterion as Close To You: The Burt Bacharach Musical (3rd Oct 2015 – 10th Jan 2016), which took a well-known back catalogue and simply performed them in exciting new styles, allowing the lyrical content to form the narrative. The second, the original Ballad Of Soho Jones, Giles Tererra’s sublime one man show (St. James’ Theatre, 13-14th May 2016), in which he intertwined the homeless character’s busking with the narrative.
As for the 13th number, the title song Girl From The North Country, which Dylan wrote in 1962 after his first visit to England, around the time of the break up of a significant relationship, I’m not sure if it refers to Elizabeth’s deteriorating wits, Marianne’s lost innocence or Mrs. Nielsen’s lost fortunes. It could refer to the relatively carefree lives wrecked by the burgeoning economic climate. It certainly tells of an acknowledged parting, a sadness but a moving on.
Go see this production if you love Bob Dylan, if you enjoy theatrical innovation for better or worse, or if you enjoy good songs well sung. It had its world premiere on 8th July, 2017, and is already the recipient of the 2016 Edgerton New Play Award.
Girl From The North Country is currently booking until 7th October 2017. Curtain is at 7:30pm, with matinées at 2:30pm on Wednesdays and Saturdays. Find out more and book here.