Review - Girl from the North Country at the Noel Coward Theatre
2017 was certainly a banner year for new musicals: not just the UK premiere of Hamilton, of course, but also the homegrown thrills of Everybody's Talking About Jamie (which transferred from Sheffield's Crucible to the Apollo), The Girls (which originated at Leeds and came to London's Phoenix Theatre), The Grinning Man (which transferred from Bristol Old Vic to the Trafalgar Studios) and the utterly delightful Romantics Anonymous (at the Sam Wanamaker Playhouse). Those all contained original scores.
But one more show arrived, as if by stealth, and totally knocked me out, too: Girl from the North Country premiered at the Old Vic last summer without too much fanfare, and might be labelled a jukebox show in that it embeds songs from the Bob Dylan catalogue into the fabric of its beautifully evocative story of the denizens a Depression-era guest house in Duluth, Minnesota.
Proving, however, that great shows will find their audience, the original run sold out -- and now it has deservedly transferred to the West End, where it feels like a bona fide gem in a world of costume jewellery. Conor McPherson, who has written it and also lovingly directed it, provides an intricate and precise yet impressionistic account of these lives unfolding, with big and small dramas playing out there. Not since Once -- the stage version of the Irish indie film -- have I felt a show move with such organic vitality; the songs emerge from the action as a swirling, fluid commentary on it, though not specifically to further the dramatic action. As with Once, the actors frequently double up as their own musicians.
There are some quietly astonishing performances along the way, too. Ciairan Hinds as the guesthouse owner and Shirley Henderson as his wife, slipping into dementia, are both just wonderful; while Sheila Atim as their adopted daughter Marianne makes a blazing impression, not least vocally, with the extraordinary stillness and power of her Tracy Chapman-like spellbinding authority. But I want to applaud the entire cast that also includes stand-out performances from Debbie Kurup, David Ganly, Adam James, Karl Johnson and Arinze Kene.
The songs are drawn from a large canvas of Dylan songs, written between 1963 and 2012; some familiar (like Forever Young), many not. As such, it not only explores the Dylan catalogue but deepens our knowledge of it. It feels to me very much like the best jukebox show since Movin' Out set Billy Joel to dance by Twyla Tharp.
Girl from the North Country Tickets are available now.