Girl from the North Country at the Noël Coward Theatre
The jukebox musical is a relatively recent phenomenon in theatre, and it could be argued that Bob Dylan’s is the most significant back catalogue yet to feature in one.
This was Conor McPherson’s challenge in writing a show that could hope to do Dylan’s songbook justice (a mission apparently handed down in mysterious fashion directly from Bob on high). Just how does one define an icon of nearly six decades standing, whose songs are often so rich and dense as to constitute a piece of theatre in themselves? With Girl from the North Country, in fittingly Dylan-esque fashion, McPherson has created an instant classic principally by confounding expectations.
Though set in the songwriter’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, the story immediately sidesteps questions of the Nobel Laureate’s cultural impact by way of taking place six years before his birth. This is the winter of 1934, the central low point of the Great Depression. Guesthouse owner Nick Laine (Cirián Hinds) can’t afford to be too judicious in offering out his beds because the bank is threatening foreclosure, his adopted daughter (Shiela Atim) is pregnant, and his wife’s (Shirley Henderson) mental health is rapidly deteriorating. The late-night arrival of a disgraced prize-fighter (Arinzé Kene) and a Bible-selling preacher (Finbar Lynch) serve as a catalyst, speeding the hostel and its occupants toward their ultimate destiny.
Among universally excellent performances, Henderson’s shines. At once anxious and coquettish, indifferent and insightful, frail and forceful, she perfectly embodies the enigmatic legend at the heart of the piece.
The script deftly doles out a measured slice of dustbowl melodrama to be elevated to soaring heights of emotional intensity by Dylan’s music. Simon Hale’s stunning arrangements have performers step out of the action and up to the mic (away from Hinds, whose grave isolation is amplified through his failure to ever break out in song) as if part of a 30s revue. These potent moments of tuneful character development drive the plot ever onward, while song choices subvert the concept of a “Greatest Hits” playlist. Relatively unlauded cuts like the achingly sorrowful Tight Connection to My Heart (from 1985’s Empire Burlesque) and the joyfully redemptive Duquesne Whistle (first recorded in 2012) often take the top table. Elsewhere, Dylan archetypes like Lay Lady Lay and Ballad of a Thin Man provide only subtlety poignant instrumental stings.
As made clear long before Girl from the North Country’s transfer from the Old Vic to the West End proper, this is a masterpiece that no Dylan fan, nor any fan of musical theatre in general, can afford to miss.
Photo: Tristram Kenton
Girl from the North Country is on at the Noël Coward Theatre from 12th July 2017 until 24th March 2018. Book your tickets here.
Watch Sheila Atim perform Tight Connection to My Heart here: