Jeremy Malies in West Sussex
26 January 2023
Girl from the North Country is a play by Conor McPherson with music and lyrics by Bob Dylan. After premiering at the Old Vic in 2017, it has had runs in New York and a West End revival. There has been a touring production to Toronto, Sydney and Auckland, and a new touring version began in Dublin last year. It has now come to the UK.
The ensemble. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
It should be remembered that McPherson is an Olivier winner (The Weir 1999) and regarded by good judges as among the best playwrights of his generation. And yet the direction of the original enquiry speaks volumes for Dylan and his openness to collaboration of all kinds. It was Dylan who made the first tentative suggestion that McPherson might want to use his songs as base material.
The action centres on a tatty boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, a hardscrabble port town on Lake Superior where Dylan was born. It is 1934 (seven years before Dylan’s birth) and the Great Depression is at its height. Just about everybody is broken and there are multiple examples of alcohol and drug misuse.
Direction is by McPherson himself and while it may be the music that is most memorable, the play is in no way slight or merely a vehicle for the songs. Music never drives plot. The dialogue propels us logically into each song, nowhere more vividly than when Frances McNamee as Elizabeth, the demented wife of the hotel proprietor, gives us a throaty “Like a Rolling Stone” in which she stresses the cynicism inherent in the lyrics. Meanwhile, her character totters between sanity and psychosis. No longer in control of herself, she blurts out the most intimate and shocking things she knows about the townspeople. McNamee underlines this by throwing her voice slightly in the dialogue like a ventriloquist speaking as their puppet.
Rebecca Thornhill and Chris McHallem. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
(Neil Stewart replaced Chris McHallem in performance reviewed here.)
Two principals were absent on the night I attended, and I was thrilled to see ensemble members excel when they were promoted to lead roles. The first understudy is Neil Stewart as Dr Walker, the town physician, who is a reformed opium addict. He is the narrator. Stewart’s perceptive treatment of a crucial speech in which the medic describes how his senses have heightened as he returns to sobriety is a highlight. These people need a mature welfare state not the platitudes of FDR’s fireside chats. “There’s no net to catch us” says one.
Graham Kent (another supporting cast member stepping up) anchors the play as Nick who is the protagonist but also a victim of circumstance and his generosity to others. Kent’s character can’t bring himself to turf out impoverished boarders, goes beyond the line of duty in caring for Elizabeth and tries to be the cement for a community that we all know will crumble. I sensed a collective shudder from the Chichester audience (always well versed in history) as we are told that Nick intends to head south to Oklahoma, right into the Dust Bowl and the desperate migrants created by John Steinbeck who are heading the other way. Many will have seen an adaptation of The Grapes of Wrath in this very theatre. It’s testament to Kent’s technical skill in creating empathy that this upsets us so much.
The only person with any hope of a successful life is Eve, played by Katherine Draper, who gets out of town in an early scene. Her love interest, Nick’s son, Gene (Gregor Milne), dithers over whether to accompany her and opts to stay. He is immediately doomed. Eve might have echoed Dylan’s own sentiment that while he appreciated the decency of his parents, he knew from infancy that he had been born in the wrong place and his true history lay elsewhere.
The ensemble. Photo credit: Johan Persson.
All these people are ghosts (Dr Walker even admits to having died before the end of the story) but we actually see one well signposted death as Elias, played by Ross Carswell, drowns and returns to lead the cast in a gospely “Duquesne Whistle”. For the first few verses his delicate silvery voice is unaccompanied before the cast joins him in a choo-choo shuffle.
If Dylan’s voice in its latest phase (no longer nasal, lower in terms of upper range, featuring occasional scat syllables and suggesting Tom Waits) is to your taste then James Staddon as Elias’ father, Burke Senior, is a standout. He uses his voice as an instrument and is the one performer whose style approximates to Dylan’s current mode of delivery.
Some of the music is performed at the front of the stage by the lead actors singing not to each other but into period microphones. It’s an approach that is well suited to Chichester’s thrust stage. Everybody is versatile and I lose count of how many people take a turn on drums.
The band is The Howlin’ Winds under Andrew Corcoran who directs from piano and harmonium. Corcoran, who is consistently imaginative, presents “Forever Young” not with its usual lullaby tone but as a hymn. There is historical authenticity here as to which instruments would have been available in 1934 and, cheerfully admitting that he was learning musical history on the job, McPherson has spoken about frustration at not being able to use pedal steel guitar and Hammond organ which he had seen as signature Dylan instruments.
Mark Henderson’s lighting hints at a shimmer off the lake which dominates the area and also features on a murky shoreline backcloth in Rae Smith’s scenic design against which the supporting singers become silhouettes. Chichester’s configuration allows lead vocalists to advance to within a few feet of the stalls and there is an intimacy to this that I never experienced on two visits to see the piece at the Old Vic.
My friend who has great musical literacy became a convert during the evening though with the proviso that as with Leonard Cohen, you can argue that this play shows that Dylan’s songs are best sung by others. My pal was also staggered to the point of needing confirmation from Google that “Make You Feel My Love” is a Dylan composition and not by Adele who has had the good judgement to rescue it from being an album filler. Adele to play the Elizabeth role in a decade or so. Now there’s an idea! This is an outstanding version of a significant folkloric work. It has flair and integrity and will prove enduring. There are seven more upcoming venues in the tour.