Review of Girl From the North Country at The Old Vic
Bob Dylan is easily one of the most important, influential musicians of the 20th century, which is why this new play, Girl From the North Country - featuring his songs - by Conor McPherson was so eagerly anticipated. But while it serves up some beautiful renditions of some classic songs, it's a pity that the storytelling (or lack of it) lets this play down.
It's set in the Minnesotan town of Duluth, where Dylan was born, in the guesthouse of the struggling Nick Laine. He's broke, caring for his ill wife, and about to lose everything he's got. He's a man on his knees. We meet his guests for the evening: an ex-boxer who found himself in prison, a preacher who sells Bibles for a living, a family of three caring for their intellectually deficient teenage child.
The characters weave in and out of each other on stage, as some play piano, others sit behind the drums, there's even a harmonica or two thrown in for good measure. We learn a little about each of the characters and where they are in their lives.
But a little seems to be all we really get. Just as the first act gets going, and we get to know enough about each of the characters to maybe form a story, it's over. We never learn enough about them to care where they've been or where they're going.
Part of the problem lies in the songs. There is no doubt they are meaningful songs in themselves, wonderfully arranged and performed pretty much perfectly by the cast. But too often, they just don't seem to mean anything. They don't help to tell the story, let alone drive it along.
That shouldn't take anything away from Simon Hale's soulful folk-inspired arrangements. The play doesn't serve up all of Dylan's hits, but it does provide a number of touching performances, namely "I Want You" performed by ex-lovers Gene (Sam Reid) and Katherine (Claudia Jolly), and Shirley Henderson's spine-tingling rendition of "Forever Young".
Henderson stands out (amongst a terrific cast) as the dementia-suffering mother of the Laine family. She is omnipresent, shuffling along the stage one minute, curling up in a ball the next. There is a soul full of life inside her, cruelly stolen.
While the first half is mostly backstory, McPherson picks up the pace in the second half. There's some barnyard dancing, and a plot begins to seep through. Though some of his direction is questionable; after seeing a mother so distraught at her son's death, why should she be dancing behind the singing reanimation of his soul? It's moments like that - as well as the odd placements of the songs - that detach you from the story.
I feel like this would have made a very good play-without-songs, and an even better Bob Dylan cover album. But the two don't seem to gel quite as well as they perhaps could have.
Girl From the North Country Tickets are available now.