From The North Country
Old Vic Theatre Summer-Autumn 2017; Noel Coward Theatre Winter 2017-2018; Gielgud Theatre Winter 2019-2020
Here's the right way to create a compilation musical. Have a major playwright create characters and plots that could carry the drama without any music, and then plug in 21 emotionally and thematically appropriate songs by a Nobel Prize winner.
According to a programme note, it was Bob Dylan who approached Conor McPherson with the idea of a collaboration and who, after the playwright came up with a concept, made his entire back catalogue available.
McPherson deliberately chose lesser-known songs – the only one the non-fan is sure to recognise is Like A Rolling Stone – so that they serve the play, rather than (as in the wholly admirable Mamma Mia) the plot being just an excuse to shoehorn in the hits.
McPherson sets his story in Dylan's home state of Minnesota (think small towns, empty plains and frigid winters) in 1934, the depth of the Great Depression.
Boarding house owner Nick is about to lose the place to the foreclosing bank, his wife Elizabeth is sinking into dementia, his son is a drunk and his adopted black daughter pregnant.
An attractive boarder is tempting him to run away, and the house also holds or is visited by a family on the run because their mentally handicapped son may have killed someone, a bible salesman not above dabbling in blackmail and petty theft, an escaped convict, a lonely old man, and the town doctor, who serves as our narrator and guide.
Yes, it sounds like a random episode of a TV soap opera. But McPherson keeps it from sinking into formula by not sensationalising any of it and by keeping in the forefront the one experience all the characters share – the soul-destroying hopelessness and depression of the Depression.
This, despite frequent moments of acerbic humour and a very few small hints of hope, is what the show is about, and it is very much to the credit of Conor McPherson as both writer and director that it all has a warmth and reality that envelop and hold the audience, keeping us sympathetic without ever being depressed ourselves.
(Coincidentally, this show is running at the same time as a revival of Jim Cartwright's Road at another theatre. Cartwright tries to do much the same thing by showing the effects of 1980s Thatcherism on a collection of characters. But at least in the current production Road fails at exactly what Girl does so effectively – create a believable and sympathetic reality to carry the more abstract social message.)
As director, McPherson moves smoothly between a realistic and a presentational style. The narrating doctor speaks directly to the audience, and the Dylan songs are divided almost evenly between those that grow out of the action in traditional Broadway musical style and those that break the fourth wall to be sung to us as choric commentary.
McPherson's choice of songs and Simon Hale's arrangements bring out some surprising qualities in Dylan's songs. Many of them have an unmistakeable blues quality, either expressing deep yearning for more or asserting survival in the face of pain.
Growled with passionate determination by Shirley Henderson as the half-mad Elizabeth, Like A Rolling Stone becomes a challenge to the Depression to try to break her spirit, while a couple of plot turns later it morphs into a torch song of crippling loneliness.
In Simon Hale's hands several songs take on a country twang and there are even distant echoes of Jim Steinman power ballads, and they all work, colouring scenes with the desired tone or reinforcing moods already established in the dialogue.
With this remarkable interplay and balance of dialogue and music, and with everyone in the cast acting, singing, dancing and even occasionally augmenting the onstage band, Girl From The North Country could be seen as carrying the Rodgers-and-Hammerstein 'integrated musical' to a new and unanticipated level.
Playing a woman whose madness allows her flashes of clarity and uninhibited truth-speaking, and singing with the soulful passion of the born blues star, Shirley Henderson carries away the acting and musical honours.
But Ciaran Hinds effectively balances her by quietly underplaying her suffering husband, making his pain the emotional core of the play.
Sheila Atim invests the secretive daughter with an enigmatic unknowability, and the ever-reliable Ron Cook anchors the play in a solid reality as the narrating doctor.
This is not a typical musical. It is something very different from, say, 42nd Street or even Les Miz.
But for anyone interested in the art form, or anyone just eager to be carried into a fictional world created by a remarkable blend of drama and music, Girl From The North Country delivers a very special experience.
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Review - Girl From The North Country - Old Vic Theatre 2017