Review – Girl from the North Country, Old Vic

Wednesday 12 July 2017

For a musical it wasn’t looking good.

Now in early previews at The Vic, Girl from the North Country has a pretty nondescript title and it plunders Bob Dylan’s back catalogue (ooo err, missus), an artist Phil has never truly embraced. Rae Smith’s set is of the minimal, deconstructed variety (musical instruments scattered around an empty stage with only a handful of backdrops popping in and out) and Mark Henderson’s lighting suggests someone has forgotten to put a shilling in the meter.

Then again, writer and director Conor McPherson wrote The Weir, which in Phil’s book almost gives him a get out of jail free card for life and the cast includes an impressive slew of reliable Whinger-Approved “names” (Ron CookShirley HendersonDebbie KurupCiarán Hinds, Stanley Townsend and Jim Norton, the latter from the original The Weir cast which duly won him both Olivier and Tony awards for his troubles) suggesting this wasn’t going to be your average “jukebox” show.

We’re in Dylan’s birthplace, Duluth, Minnesota. That’s Fargo country, though sadly only some of the cast deliver a hint of that wonderful accent. It’s 1934, seven years before Bob entered the world. Nick Laine (Hinds) owns a guesthouse, where the guests mostly seem to get along rather splendidly, but he’s hopelessly in debt, his wife (Henderson – deliciously batty) has a peculiar dementia so he’s free to schtupp one of his guests, widow woman Mrs Neilson (Kurup). His adopted daughter Marianne (Sheila Atim – extraordinary) appears to be pregnant and is made an offer, from comfortably off Mr Perry (Norton), she finds easy to refuse.

A drum-bashing, bible-bashing, bible-selling preacher with body odour (Michael Schaeffer) turns up, as does a falsely-accused boxer (Arinzé Kene) which, if you know the Dylan canon, tips us off for “Hurricane“. Which, when it lands in Act 2, arrives with some agreeably jaunty choreography from the whole cast and an opportunity to watch veteran Norton attempt to line dance.

There’s a doctor (Cook – underused) who pops in and out to provide some morphine and narration and Mr and Mrs Burke (Townsend and Bronagh Gallagher) who come with an impressive Act 2 duet and a slightly backward son (Jack Shaloo) who reveals an incredible set of lungs in an unexpected show-stopper.

By the end of Act 1 Phil had to admit he’d been decidedly moved. Not to head for an interval departure, but that he’d done Bob a huge disservice. Take away Dylan’s annoying voice and hear them sung (often stunningly) with fantastic arrangements (take a bow Simon Hale) played beautifully by an on-stage band and cast members taking turns on various instruments; Phil felt the hairs on the back of his neck rising more than once. Especially during Henderson’s thrilling “Like a Rolling Stone” and a duet between Nick’s son Gene (Sam Reid) and his potential squeeze Katherine (Claudia Jolly), “I Want You”. Phil would sit through it all again just to hear Atim’s rendition of “Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love)” which would have even more impact relocated towards the end of the show.

At the break Phil feared he might have to swallow his prejudices and dust off the 5 glass rating, but Act 2 doesn’t quite live up to the promise of the first. The biggest problem is there’s almost too much going on. The inevitable post-interval tragedy seems implausible in its handling and the many strands are wrapped up a bit too suddenly. But, early preview and all that, some of this may be sorted.

This isn’t your average musical and Phil wouldn’t rule out a return visit. Even the crepuscular lighting and scrappy design conjured up some rather gorgeous images on occasion, the book is more intelligent than most musicals and has a few laugh out loud moments. The songs don’t advance the action but rather provide atmosphere for the plot and characters. Some of the best known Dylan numbers don’t even get a look in. “Lay Lady Lay” is heard briefly and ironically as mood music in the background towards the end.

This will be marmite for some. But if Phil can be converted perhaps anyone can. Whatever next? Alice Cooper or Woody Guthrie musicals?

What everyone wants to know is will Dylan show up for the opening night? Nah. He’ll probably end up at Dave Stewart’s house instead.










19 Responses to “Review – Girl from the North Country, Old Vic”

  1. webcowgirl Says:

    Alright, fine. I have no love for Dylan but you’re right, get out of jail card for life. I’ll book a ticket.

  2. Kitty Says:

    Fab review. This is very encouraging, have tickets for next week!

  3. I have to admit, I booked the seats despite the Dylan music rather than because. Going Saturday, I’m looking forward to it more now, thanks to your review. Cheers!

  4. Sal Says:

    A charming review – in homage to Mr. Zimmerman’s plagiarized Nobel Prize speech copying parts of Cliff Notes summaries of great literature, it should perhaps have been lifted from another source. The time-honored acumen of the Whingers is required to solve the ongoing mystery of the fact that like Dylan, Ethel Merman was born with the near-identical name Zimmermann, raising the question of whether they are secret siblings… Perhaps a DNA test would resolve the issue, as in the tests to identify Jack the Ripper –

  5. Lisa Stubbs Says:

    Loved it, by far the best musical I have ever been to.

  6. Donald White Says:

    It’s Girl Of (not From) The North Country

  7. Biggest load of shite I have ever seen in my life. Don’t waste your time. I was actually cringing with embarrassment it was so bad. What a waste of an opportunity.

  8. Baldassaro Says:

    Not logical or positive enough for you, Ludwig? I’d just be philosophical about it if I were you…

    • I fear there is no logic to your argument Ludwig …. You Philosophers~ Don’t expect anything & you won’t be disappointed? Sorry, that you were….I saw GFTNC on 15/07/2017 & it received several standing ovations. I thought it was excellent (* still in Previews) Perhaps this is a fitting description of your good self…
      ‘I sit astride life like a bad rider on a horse. I only owe it to the horse’s good nature that I am not thrown off at this very moment’.
      You KNOW who you are…Ludwig Wittgenstein..

  9. Peter Cordwell Says:

    Other musicals, even The Kinks one, run out of songs after about seven or eight, and Lloyd-Webber doesn’t even start with one. With Bobby (yes, a big fan) a ‘musical’ like this covers less than one per cent of his work. You could choose 50 themes (without touching crap like ‘I’m Not There’) and still have room for a penalty shoot-out.
    TBH, the “story” meant nothing to me but I loved the songs sung by great voices. We went early and it suffered from typical middle class shyness in the audience.
    The writer was wrong to leave out ‘People starvin’ and thirstin’/grain elevators are burstin’/you know it costs more to store the food than it do to give it’…how relevant os that in 2017?!!
    Going again with my son tomorrow night for the great songs and the great voices.
    ‘Well, my ship’s been split to splinters and it’s sinking fast/I’m drowning in the poison, got no future, got no past/But my heart is not weary, it’s light and it’s free/I’ve got nothing but affection for all those who sailed with me.’
    You stick to your own boat, Phil?

  10. Alastair Campbell Says:

    For the most part, the songs and music bring this play to life with a real depth of emotion. It’s a pity Shirley Henderson was allowed to ruin “Forever Young”, with a screeching performance that stripped all of the soul and emotion from a beautiful song. Her rendition of “Like a Rolling Stone” was the other low point from an otherwise excellent cast.

    • Catherine edgar Says:

      Went to it Thursday with great expectations but found it hit and miss really. I wanted to love it but the brilliant Sheila Atim was sadly let down by some screechy singing by Shirley Henderson. There was just two much going on for one stage and the love story was superfluous in my opinion. All in all an enjoyable show that may grate on some.

  11. Best play I have seen for quite while. The medleys where particularly well worked. “Hurricane” and “Idiot Wind” were cleverly combined and edited to make sense in the context of the characters (can listen on oldvictheatre soundcloud page). Shirley Henderson was brilliant, as was Jack Shaloo’s barnstorming rendition of Duquesne Whistle. Worth five falafels and five fishballs in my book.

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