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Tangled up in blue… Bob Dylan with a dream twist

Poverty blowin’ in the wind: Arinze Kene as Joe Scott PIC: MANUAL HARLAN


Girl From The North Country

The Old Vic, London ★★★★✩

What an entrancing, not entirely successful, must-see show this is. Conor McPherson, known for his evergreen hit drama The Weir, has constructed a musical play using 20 classic — and not so classic — tracks from across Bob Dylan’s career. Each has been hauntingly rearranged by Simon Hale, sometimes almost beyond recognition. The effect, as dialogue and song bleed in and out of each other in a fluid, dream-like piece of theatre, is sublime.

McPherson’s play, which has flavours of Eugene O’Neill, is a tangy Depression-era portrait of a family running a boarding house in 1930s Minnesota. Marianne, the adopted black daughter, is pregnant; her brother Gene, a wannabe writer, can’t get a job. Elizabeth, the mother (a compulsively watchable Shirley Henderson), is slowly succumbing to dementia while patriarch Nick is overwhelmed by debt. The stench of poverty is blowing in the wind.

McPherson’s play can’t escape its debt to other, greater American plays, and were you to strip away the music its shortcomings would be obvious. There is something slightly suspect, too, about abject poverty being presented with such deliberate beauty: I’ve never seen such a dementia sufferer look so lovely as Henderson’s Elizabeth does.

But these are minor quibbles in a free-flowing production in which Dylan’s songs become their own ghost play. Many of the cast are outstanding singers. Henderson performs Forever Young with poignancy; Sheila Atim, who plays Marianne, delivers Tight Connection To My Heart as a folk lament thick with yearning.

This show isn’t always fully in focus but, when it is, it’s wondrous.