Noel Coward Theatre
The words “Bob Dylan musical” don’t inspire confidence. Past attempts to write a story around a famous songbook – Thriller, Viva Forever, Tonight’s the Night – have been as shallow as a puddle. Surely, Dylan’s Nobel Prize-winning oeuvre is above this song-and-dance lark?
Not when it’s written by Conor McPherson, the Irish playwright dubbed king of the ghost story for his ghoulish dramas. In his hands, the music is subordinate, if anything, an impressionistic flourish on top of a melancholy period piece.
Following a sell-out run at The Old Vic, Girl From the North Country has transferred to the Noel Coward Theatre for a three month run and it’s taken many admirers with it, with audience members boasting they’d seen it three or four times already.
The simple tale dives in and out of the shambolic lives of a ragtag collection of castaways, criminals and Bible salesmen lodging at a boarding house in Minnesota. All the while, the great depression that followed the Wall Street Crash is eating away at their assets and their self-esteem, and another war is rumbling away across the ocean, threatening to engulf them, too.
Though Dylan’s songbook was written long after this period, its sparse refrains and haunting hooks are the perfect melancholic tonic for this harsh period of austerity. In the hands of more tuneful singers than Dylan, his melodies sound beautifully light, as though they’ve been set free. A lo-fi band prowls in the background, the strings lifting tender moments into sublime ones.
Nothing’s Blowin’ in the Wind, no Times are a Changin’; these are deep cuts, allowing the performers to exhale sincerity with every sigh. Like a Rolling Stone and Forever Young are the exceptions, both of them beautifully bellowed from the powerfully petite Shirley Henderson, but Sheila Atim delivers the unshowy showstopper of the night; her quiet rendition of Tight Connection of My Heart is bewitching. In fact, there isn’t a weak link in the ensemble.
These are messy characters for messy times, but out of this gloom, chaos and the grumblings of a grizzly Minnesotan, comes something beautiful and original.