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Girl from the North Country at The Old Vic

Alice Dickerson

Conor McPherson has created a hit which will appeal to fans of Bob Dylan and non fans alike

Unfettered access to Bob Dylan's back catalogue must be the dream of many artists. Yet it comes with immense expectation and pressure – imagine the backlash from Dylan fans should you get it wrong. Playwright (and, in this instance, director) Conor McPherson found himself in the curious position of being offered this privileged access – and initially turned it down, unclear how or even whether he wished to write a play based on Dylan's songs, as the behest of the singer himself.

Thankfully McPherson decided to take up the challenge and the result is a beautiful, moving piece of theatre. The lyricism of Bob Dylan's music is perfectly blended with Conor McPherson's poetic vision. Set in Depression Era America, Girl from the North Country gives us a brief glimpse into the lives of the inhabitants of a boarding house in Dylan's home town of Duluth Minnesota. Each is struggling with the economic and social grind of the time and McPherson does not gloss over this – there are few happy endings.

Despite the large cast, there are no weak links. Ciaran Hinds as Nick Laine plays the role of patriarch perfectly – the tragedy of his back story etched on his face. Shirley Henderson as ailing Elizabeth Laine and Sheila Atim as her pregnant adopted daughter Marianne also command particular attention. There were a couple of touching moments between the two but we could have benefited from more insight into this relationship, challenged by racial stigma and dementia, but kept strong by the bond between mother and daughter.

The way in which McPherson moves seamlessly between dialogue and lyrics is truly impressive. Dylan's songs are performed in no particular order and do not always link directly to what is happening on stage. But the deep love and hurt that the songs convey mirrors the emotions of the folk of the boarding house, trying to make their way in a difficult and uncaring world. The only point at which this mix of narrative and song jarred slightly was when Shirley Henderson (brilliantly) sang Like A Rolling Stone dressed more for the era in which the song was first written rather than the 1930s.

I'm curious to know why Bob Dylan wished for a playwright, even such a brilliant one as McPherson, to write a play based around his music. It is not as if his songs are not enough of a legacy. Yet in doing so he has enabled a beautiful piece of work to be created. Hopefully Dylan finds the time to see it for himself.

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