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Review: Girl From the North Country at the Old Vic

This ‘conversation’ between Bob Dylan’s songs and a Depression-era story is rare theatrical magic

04 August, 2017 — By Sipora Levy

Shirley Henderson and Michael Shaeffer in Girl from the North Country

Conor McPherson had no intention of creating a musical based on Bob Dylan’s songs. But when Dylan’s record company approached him with the idea four years ago, he soon accepted the challenge. It is to Dylan’s credit that he gave McPherson full artistic control, and the result is pure genius – a work so revelatory that it transcends genres and illuminates Dylan’s songs in a totally fresh way.

It is set in the winter of 1934 in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota, in the middle of the Depression, though seven years before Dylan was born. There is no plot as such, but a glimpse into the lives of people who live in a local guesthouse. The owners are Nick (Ciarán Hinds) and his wife Elizabeth (Shirley Hender­son) who has dementia. Their son Gene is an alcoholic would-be writer and their black adopted daughter Marianne (Sheila Atim) is pregnant and single.

Guests include several lonely and unhappy people and a Bible salesman. Unsurprisingly their lives are full of sadness and longing as are the songs McPherson has chosen to express his characters’ emotional lives.

“It’s a conversation between the songs and the story,” he said in an interview. And what a rich conversation it is.

It is hard to single anyone out, as the show works so brilliantly, because everyone involved is totally committed to the project. However, stand-out moments include Henderson’s electrifying rendition of Like a Rolling Stone, Atim’s heartbreaking Tight Connection to my Heart and Duquesne Whistle by the whole cast.

Theatrical experiences as magical as this are rare, see it while you can.

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