Thursday, 27 July 2017

Theatre Review: Girl from the North Country

I don’t like Bob Dylan and I make no apologies for this fact.

So there.

What I do like however is musicals. I like them a lot. And I also like theatres that sell off seats they want to fill for their press night for £5.

The confluence of these two things led to me seeing ‘Bob Dylan musical’ Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic. Note that use of inverted commas, it’s important. Girl tells the story of a shitty guesthouse in 1930s America, inhabited by owner Nick Laine, his eclectic family (wife with dementia, alcoholic son, adopted black daughter) and a motley assortment of misfits and down and outs who count as his guests. The story weaves a book by writer-director Conor McPherson with Dylan’s extensive back catalogue but this is definitely and defiantly not a traditional musical nor, heaven forbid, a jukebox musical. I enjoyed it far, far more than I was ever expecting mainly as a result of this.

I bloody love this programme design. 

I suppose what Girl can most accurately described as is a play with songs. But actually it’s more complex than that. The use of music is really interesting. Occasionally it is integrated into the action and used to move on the plot, as in a traditional musical, but by and large it’s something entirely separate that essentially presses pause on the action and uses the song to comment on it. This is achieved by having actors sing, at standing microphones, directly to the audience rather than to each other. It takes a little getting used to but it does work and the idea of using music as a commentary on the spoken dialogue and plot development is something genuinely new (to me anyway). That it’s done with such utter confidence and deliberateness, and by a cast in superb voice, totally sells it.

I also love that it messes around with genre and style; apparently soul and gospel Bob Dylan is Bob Dylan I can get behind. The selection of music is a surprise too, big songs that I did not expect to hear get an airing alongside songs that I have literally never heard of (which admittedly is not difficult given my Dylan knowledge). The entire back catalogue has been mined by the sounds of thing and it’s much to the show’s advantage.

Music is used to do some really effective things with characterisation. The best example of this is with the lead character of Nick whose acute loneliness and sadness is portrayed through the fact that he doesn’t sing a single note at any point. At all. In a show to which music is so integral, to have a lead character who is completely excluded from it is such an interesting idea and works so well. I felt that I learned as much about Nick from the way he’s used, or not, as a dramatic instrument as I did from his dialogue.

The plotting and writing is arguably where this play does fall down a bit. There are too many characters for one thing and some of their stories are frustratingly untold. Sometimes the plot itself feels a bit of a let down, the cop out ending in particular. And I couldn’t get on board with the use of a narrator character, even in the form of the great Ron Cook, just describing some of the key moments. I wanted to actually see them. However, the speed at which the plot and the characters unravel is slow and beautiful, it allows the drama and the music to breathe, with the occasional dramatic sucker punch to make sure everyone is still awake. In a production whose design is so evocative of its time and place, the themes around uncertainty and inequality raised by the Depression era setting are dealt with well and subtly.

Speaking of the design, it’s strong, working very hard to be authentically of its time and place without looking too folksy or like it was lifted from a theme park. It evokes ‘Dylan-ness’ too in a way I can’t fully explain except to say that the setting the production creates feels like somewhere the man and his music could live. (I can’t go into too much detail on the design as I couldn’t see all of it - a timely reminder that the cheap seats in the Old Vic have genuinely terrible sightlines.) The onstage band are fantastic and create a huge sound despite being only a handful of people. Their musicianship is worth the price of a ticket alone, frankly.

It’s been a good year so far for ensemble acting and Girl continues this with aplomb. In fact it makes more use of ensemble work than I’ve seen for a long time, particularly in the singing, which given how well it’s done is great to watch. Ciaran Hinds stars as Nick and is exactly the strong, surly and sad lead that the play needs. I’ve always wanted to see him on stage and he didn’t disappoint here one iota. Also worth noting is the superb Debbie Kurup as Nick’s wannabe mistress who has a kickass voice and a lonely desperation that is so affecting. Sheila Atim and Arinze Kene are great as Nick’s daughter and her partner, both giving performances of real heart and mystery. The whole cast is fantastic throughout and compensate for any weaknesses of plot and writing with excellent performances and top drawer singing.

Ultimately, I don’t know if Girl from the North Country is a great Bob Dylan show. And I don’t care. What it is is a fantastic, interesting, weird and enchanting show - musical, play, play with songs, whatever you want to call it. Highly recommended, Dylan fan or no.

Girl from the North Country plays at the Old Vic until October 7th.

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