Bob Dylan wrote The Times They Are A Changin’ in 1964 but Conor McPherson’s exquisite musical play, The Girl From The North Country, uses the singer-songwriter’s tunes in a new way to create a timeless portrait of communities and people struggling to survive economic uncertainty.
It may be set in America’s Great Depression but, sadly, little has changed since then. It is searingly relevant today with the country’s dispossessed and disadvantaged trying to put down roots and find security and happiness.
What is extraordinary about this remarkable production – more a play with music than a musical – which has just opened at London’s Old Vic Theatre, is how atmospheric and nostalgic it feels.
It could be classic John Steinbeck with Dylan’s sentient lyrics and blues music, written from the 1960s onwards, making themselves right at home in a play set in 1934. They were made for each other.
Never intrusive, but always pertinent, they enrich this searing tale of transience and hopelessness that is set in a run down boarding house in Dylan’s home town of Duluth, Minnesota.
The flophouse, as some of the locals condemn it, is run on a shoestring by Ciarán Hinds’ Nick Laine, who serves up stew while also struggling to care for his increasingly erratic wife, Elizabeth, a dementia sufferer.
Unable to cope with her wild behaviour and his drunken son’s inability and unwillingness to find work, Nick gets a bit of action from the widowed Mrs Neilson (Debbie Kurup) who is a guest.
Meanwhile it is left to the Laine’s black, pregnant, “adopted” daughter, Marianne (Sheila Atim) to care for her mother.
Shirley Henderson is outstanding as Elizabeth. She steals every scene she’s in with her explicit language, jerky movements and outrageous behaviour. But what is a real eye-opener is her powerful and melodic singing voice.
Henderson, Atim and Kurup are exceptional singers and are given moments within the story to perform directly to the audience or as part of a larger ensemble number.
The down-at-heel boarding house attracts a selection of misfits who are either part of the local landscape or just passing through.
Nick is trying to marry off his reluctant daughter to an old man, widower Mr Perry (Jim Norton), 70 if he’s a day, to give her baby respectability, but she’s having none of it.
And guests The Burke family (Stanley Townsend and Bronagh Gallagher with Jack Shalloo playing their mentally damaged son), former champion boxer, Joe Scott, (Arinzé Kene) and even bible salesman Reverend Marlowe (Michael Schaeffer) all have dark and intriguing secrets.
Girl From the North Country is masterful and evocative in its storytelling. There isn’t a weak performance or a dull moment. Utterly unmissable.
Running at The Old Vic Theatre until October 7.
Girl From the North Country
Girl From the North Country is exquisitely written and directed by Conor McMcPherson with outstanding performances, Bob Dylan tunes and evocative storytelling.