By Conor O’Neill
A musical based around the songs of Bob Dylan? This should be interesting. But this is far from your typical ‘let’s roll out some famous artist’s tunes and make a packet’ jukebox show with a thin plotline and unbelievable characters.
No, this production is unlike an ‘musical’ – and I use the term with a throw-away abandon – you’ll see this year, the year after, and quite possibly for many years to come. Irish writer and director Conor McPherson’s take on a musical is as far from ‘jazz hands’ as a musical could wish to be. And all the better for it. He was approached by Dylan’s people to write something using the artist’s massive back catalogue – more than 50 albums and 600 songs -, a task in itself, but more so for someone who had never written a musical before.
Dylan’s people dropped a box of his entire recording history at his door and McPherson was given free rein to do as he wished, in fact he was told not to involve Dylan in any way.
What’s delivered is a story set in mid-depression 1930s Minnesota, USA. Think Steinbeck’s classic Cannery Row and you’ll be close to hitting on the gist of this moving, sultry and powerful piece of musical theatre. I wouldn’t go as far to state there’s a focal-point plot, rather Girl From The North’s storyline is a multitude of minor yet equally fitting and intertwined human stories; each one utterly believable and achingly sublime. Race, class and gender topics are all dealt with. Not in an obvious manner but with an iron fist in a velvet glove sort of way.
It’s based round a hotel, of sorts, and the characters range from adopted daughters, to a fraudulent reverends, a pestering businessman, pregnant and unmarried to a built-like-a-brick-wall former boxer and a few surprises closer to home.
Any other writer with a room full of Dylan LPs may have gone for the obvious: Girl From The North Country happily ignores that screamingly obvious and is more than adventurous. I cut Dylan’s music off as soon as he hit his Christian phase in the late 1970s. How wrong was I. I’m far from an aficionado, but I felt coming into this show I’d more than hold my own. In this we’re presented with tunes from 1965’s Highway 61 Revisited, many from his religious period and right up to 2012’s Tempest.
McPherson’s choice of tunes, where he places them, who sings them and what context sets this ‘play with music’ gives it an edge many other writers wouldn’t have thought of. Add to this the fact he chose to rely on instruments that were to be found in the 1930s and he seems to have went out of his way to make things difficult for himself. An upright bass, a fourpiece drumkit, a piano, a violin and a multitude of vocals bring the tale to life.
What’s more, more than a couple of the actors double up as musicians: some play the drums, some play the fiddle, but all play their part in delivering a great story beautifully delivered.
Usually I recommend a piece of musical theatre for an hour or two of escapism, complete with pyrotechnics and overt dance routines. For this show I’m beyond ‘recommendations’. This show demands me to compel and implore you to get on the phone and book tickets right now. It really is that good.
So, what are you waiting for? Girl From The North runs up to and including Saturday, February 18, 2023.
For booking info and times visit http://www.goh.co.uk or simply phone the box office on 02890 241919