Sunday, 9 July 2017
Girl From The North Country at The Old Vic
Conor McPherson is one of my favourite playwrights and he doesn’t disappoint with his first foray into the realms of musical theatre. Girl From the North Country (a song off Bob Dylan’s 1963 album, “The Freewheelin’ Bob Dylan) had it’s first preview last night and is an absolute joy.
As the playwright states in the programme “this new musical is not a greatest hits compilation or a classic West End blockbuster where the songs drive the plot. It’s a conversation between the songs and the story” …. a big plus in my view. Rather than having the cast sing to one another, they do so to the audience using old-fashioned stand microphones, and each of them plays a performer broadcasting the story, as well as the character within it. The only instruments used are those that existed in the 1930’s and several of the cast members aid the musicians on stage with a spot of drumming.
Set in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth Minnesota during the Depression of the early 1930’s, the action takes place in a guesthouse owned by Nick (Ciaran Hinds) and his wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson). It is left to Nick to run the place, because Elizabeth has dementia, whilst their son, Gene (Sam Reid) is a drunk with delusions of being a writer. Their adopted black daughter, Marianne (Sheila Atim) helps, but being pregnant and without a partner, Nick is desperate for her to have the stability of having a ring on her finger. The guests themselves include a widow with whom Nick is involved, a couple with a son who has mental problems, a bible salesman and a black boxer. Add to this broad mix of society, the local doctor (Ron Cook) who narrates the story, an eclectic mix of Dylan’s songs, sung to perfection, plus the brilliance of McPherson’s story telling and the result is a great evening’s entertainment.
It’s great to see McPherson’s frequent collaborators, Ciaran Hinds, Ron Cook, Jim Norton and Stanley Townsend on the Old Vic stage, whilst the newcomers are equally as good. Those cast members who sing (the majority I might add) all bring something utterly new to Dylan’s songs. It’s as if we’re hearing them for the first time and they all highlight the songwriter’s brilliance.
It’s almost unfair to single out a cast member as they’re all so good. Ciaran Hinds is his usual superb self, whilst Shirley Henderson, exquisitely captures the unique liberation that dementia can bring. She has no “off” button and her antics lighten the mood to some of the sadder aspects of the story. The singing of all is also exemplary. Each performer has a totally unique voice (no standard musical theatre singers here) and when, as often happens, they are joined by some of the other cast, it all blends in so perfectly. One particularly strong voice is that of the brilliant Arinze Kene (so, so good in the recent One Night In Miami at The Donmar) who plays the boxer. And Sheila Atim’s voice sends the spine tingling.
How wise of Artistic Director, Matthew Warchus to insist that McPherson direct his own play. He doesn’t hit a bum note, just like the musicians and singers and if the first night in front of a paying audience is this good, I can only urge people to go and buy a ticket for future ones.
Just for the record, the singer, Lulu, sat behind us last night and obviously enjoyed it as much as we did, for she quietly sang along to most of the numbers.