As a war of words rages in the theatre industry about the classification of actors and performers, plays and musical theatre, Conor McPherson's new Dust Bowl drama featuring the songs of Bob Dylan – classed as a play with songs but eligible in the musical categories at this year's Olivier Awards – seamlessly blends the genres. The Irish playwright's distinct dialogue and the Nobel Prize-winner's visionary songs create a sprawling story of America in the height of the Great Depression.
It's 1934, a guesthouse in Dylan's hometown of Duluth, Minnesota. Jobs are scarce, poverty is rife and tents line the highways, housing the country's dispossessed. A motley crew of the worst affected citizens rattle around the inn, unexpectedly thrust from their lives; a widower stuck in limbo, a previously wealthy family and their disabled son left bankrupt by non-paying debtors, a blackmailing, card-playing Bible salesman and a wrongly convicted boxer.
At the heart of it all is stoic custodian Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds, brilliant), a man who's copped his fair share of suffering, the Depression just another torment in a long line of tragedies. His wife Elizabeth's (Shirley Henderson, mesmerising) in the grip of dementia, his layabout literary son Gene is perennially unemployed and finds solace at the bottom of the bottle, and his debts are rising beyond any discernible point of return. Meanwhile, he's kept busy providing for his guests – none of which can afford to pay him – and attempting to marry off his black, adopted pregnant daughter – abandoned in a bag by former tenants years ago – to a septuagenarian cobbler.
It all sounds rather bleak, but McPherson underpins the first act with a palpable sense of optimism. Where the gathered guests should be collapsing under the weight of the pressures placed upon them, they instead carry themselves with a sense of hope, a desperate longing for a way back, or forward as it were. They've all got a plan, whether it's waiting for payment of a will, chasing a debtor, making their way to Chicago to find an investor, Laine's inn is a halfway house, halfway between their former life and the future they hope they can salvage from this wreck of a nation. That is until tragedy strikes at a Thanksgiving dinner and truths start to reveal themselves, the mask of positivity begins to drop.
A wide-ranging selection of Dylan's songs from across his remarkable career punctuates the piece with a poetic poignancy, deftly accompanied by a violin, double bass and drum kit. "Tight Connection to My Heart" and "I Want You" evoke the romantic longing of many of the play's characters, whereas "Like a Rolling Stone" speaks devastatingly of the state of oblivion they find themselves in. "Duquesne Whistle", performed magnificently by Jack Shalloo as Elias Burke the disabled child liberated by death, is a true showstopper.
The cast is uniformly brilliant, from Arinze Kene's pacifist pugilist Joe Scott, to Debbie Kurup's wistful widow Mrs Neilsen. Adam James as narrator Dr Walker is a reassuring constant, if a little underused. Sheila Atim stuns with a silky smooth voice as daughter Marianne Laine, piercing the atmosphere at the show's new West End home. But it's Henderson's performance as the painfully afflicted Elizabeth that constantly pulls the eye. Descended into a state that is at turns playfully childish and sexually starved, she delivers a final blow that strikes with the force of a hurricane.