Having experienced a resounding Broadway flop in 2006 with Twyla Tharp’s The Times They Are A-Changin’, song laureate Bob Dylan was understandably protective when it came to future theatrical presentations of his work. Yet out of the blue, Dylan’s manager contacted Irish playwright Conor McPherson – who was catapulted to fame in 1997 with his Olivier Award-winning ghost story The Weir at the age of 25. McPherson was given an open invitation to use Dylan’s catalogue of songs in any manner he chose.
As McPherson had never written a musical before and neither had Dylan, he didn’t give the suggestion much thought until one day an idea struck him. He would write a play set in a rundown guest house in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota during the height of the Depression. It wouldn’t be a conventional jukebox musical in the mould of Jersey Boys but rather a character-driven drama in which Dylan’s songs would provide a soundtrack appropriate to the mood of any given moment without the necessity of furthering the plot. It would, said Conor, “free the songs from the burden of relevance for our generation and make them timeless.”
It’s a brilliant concept, and with a multi-talented cast to prop it up, Girl From the North Country works thrillingly. Despite the familiarity of a context exhaustively explored in so many Depression-era books, films and plays, Dylan’s songs lend it a freshness and a contemporary relevance that resonates powerfully and movingly.
The time is 1934 – one of the bleakest years of the Depression. A world in microcosm exists within the confines of the shabby guest-house run by Nick Laine (Ciaran Hinds), whose parlous financial circumstances are exacerbated by a wife (Shirley Henderson, wonderful) suffering from dementia, a layabout alcoholic son (Sam Reid) with unfulfilled literary aspirations, and a black adopted daughter (stunning Sheila Atim) who is pregnant, though the father is nowhere to be seen. Nick is doing his best to marry her off to an elderly shoe salesman (Jim Norton) while he himself is having a liaison with a widow (Debbie Kurup) who occupies a room upstairs.
Other characters wrestling despair, disillusion and survival include a destitute factory boss (Stanley Townsend), his pill-addicted wife (Bronagh Gallagher), their grown-up son with the brain of a four-year-old (Jack Shalloo), a boxer (Arinze Kene on top form) whose promising career crashed after he was wrongfully arrested, a local morphine-addicted doctor (Ron Cook) who also serves as an occasional narrator, and an unscrupulous, blackmailing bible salesman (Michael Schaeffer, effectively creepy).
Reminiscent of plays by Eugene O’Neill, William Saroyan, Thornton Wilder, Arthur Miller and Maxim Gorky in which a group of men and women collectively represent humanity in its desperate fight for fulfilment and survival, McPherson’s drama and Dylan’s songs (from 1963 to "Duquesne Whistle" in 2012) succeed in taking the pulse of the human condition.
The play is compellingly directed by the author, whose multi-tasking cast, in addition to delivering sharply delineated, vividly observed characterisations, are also terrific singers who happen to play several musical instruments. They deserve to be seen and heard.