Did critics Bob along to Girl from the North Country?
Conor McPherson's latest work is set in Bob Dylan’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota and weaves the Nobel Prize winner's songs into a tale of the Great Depression
Sarah Crompton, WhatsOnStage
"First a confession. I have never quite 'got' the music of Bob Dylan – so I was worried that Conor McPherson's sort of musical, sort of play, with music and lyrics by the literary Nobel Prize winner would leave me cold."
"As it turns out the songs – smartly chosen and sung with force and feeling by an incredible cast – are the best thing about a very peculiar show indeed."
"Its origins explain some of its oddity. McPherson, a skilled spinner of tales who won such acclaim with The Weir, was approached by Dylan's management and asked if he would be interested in basing a show around the songs. After some hesitation, the idea took hold and he came up with a setting in Dylan's hometown of Duluth, Minnesota."
"So here we are, in winter 1934, at the height of the Great Depression, in a boarding house owned by the bank but run by Nick (a powerful Ciaran Hinds) and his wife Elizabeth (Shirley Henderson) who is in the grip of dementia. Among the characters around them are their wastrel writer son, an adopted black daughter Marianne, a widow who loves Nick, a couple burdened by a manchild who has never grown up and may have killed someone, an evil preacher and a good boxer. Oh, and there's a wise doctor, played with easy authority by Ron Cook, who comments on the action."
"Their stories, such as they are, are revealed in the intervals between songs, performed to the audience and with microphones, accompanied by an excellent, pared-back on stage band using period instruments (arranged and supervised by Simon Hale). You can see where it's heading, but it simply doesn't work."
Ben Brantley, New York Times
"McPherson, one of the greatest dramatists working, seems to be travelling through the dark without a compass."
"Such helplessness has always been the natural state of the people who inhabit McPherson's plays, which include the unsettling masterworks The Weir and Shining City. These folks are a haunted breed, mortally lonely yet dimly aware of a connection to some indefinable otherworld. Song often becomes their conduit to that unmapped place."
"These rolling stones gather no moss but accumulate lots of regrets. They are assembled for one thankless Thanksgiving under the roof of Nick Laine (Hinds); his demented wife, Elizabeth (Henderson, in a compellingly visceral performance); their alcoholic, literary son, Gene (Sam Reid); and their adopted daughter, Marianne (a mesmerizing Sheila Atim), who may or may not be pregnant."
"These nomadic folks have scarcely a dollar among them, but their secrets are dark and manifold. If you know classic American theatre, you've met them before. With its mix of down-home coziness and violent desperation, Girl brings to mind a fraught collaboration by Thornton Wilder and Eugene O'Neill, with a dash of William Saroyan's whimsy."
"It sounds a lot better set to music. And I have the feeling that Mr. McPherson, in writing his dialogue, may have been overly infected by Mr. Dylan's lyrics, which are far more credible sung than spoken."
Not surprisingly, then, it's when the characters sing that Girl acquires the numinous glow associated with Mr. McPherson's plays. These numbers — from vintage (I Want You, Forever Young) to recent (Duquesne Whistle) — occur with merciful frequency, and McPherson doesn't try to link them directly to the plot, in the style of the musical Mamma Mia!"
"They're not just singing Bob Dylan songs. They are giving eloquence to wounded, inarticulate souls from a lost era that, for the moment, feels achingly like the present."
Natasha Tripney, The Stage
"McPherson crams in far too many characters. The Laines' drunken son Gene has a love interest, but she gets merely a handful of lines and half a song before she's forgotten. The great Ron Cook is underused as a narrator, and the story itself is three parts spun sugar to one part social commentary. Sentimentality and cliche abound. Yet this all matters less than it might because the cast is superb. There's not a weak link among them."
"Ciaran Hinds is gruff yet vulnerable as Nick, while Shirley Henderson is small and far away as Elizabeth. On one hand it's the performance you might expect from her, but then she unleashes this mighty voice from her small frame for her rendition of Like a Rolling Stone. Sheila Atim displays a similar vocal prowess as the Laines' daughter Marianne, while Arinze Kene, as the boxer Joe, has magnetism to spare and a voice that could melt – well, pretty much anything."
"Simon Hale's musical arrangements are glorious and the mixture of story (such as it is) and song works incredibly well. Even when Jack Shalloo, as the brain damaged young man seemingly liberated through death, breaks into song – a moment that should reek of cheese – it ends up being kind of wonderful, moving even."
Ann Treneman, The Times
"You don't need to know [Dylan's] songs to fall for this play by Conor McPherson, which includes 20 of them. But if you do know them well, as I do, then there are moments when you can just close your eyes and melt into the night. And, it must be said, though possibly in a whisper, that almost all are more enjoyable because the man himself is not singing them."
"[This is] a tale of heartbreak and hardscrabble, poetic but not without fun in the guesthouse run by Nick and Elizabeth Laine. He's a debtor, she's got a wild streak and early onset dementia. Their grown-up son, Gene, is a writer who drinks or, more accurately, a drinker who writes. Their daughter, Marianne, is black, adopted after she was abandoned as a baby by a guest. Now she is pregnant although the circumstances are all a bit murky."
"It's a broken world, an idiot wind blowing through it, but evocative too. It's beautifully lit, like a Hopper painting, by Mark Henderson, and the sepia set by Rae Smith has room for a four-piece band (playing instruments from the '30s) in a far corner with an old-fashioned piano and drum set further forward. Ciarán Hinds is a force of nature as Nick and Shirley Henderson gives Elizabeth an extraordinary depth and grace, dancing, sexual, furious."
"It is genius the way that McPherson, who also directs, has tapped into the American folk era of Woody Guthrie and hobos, something that inspired Dylan in his early Freewheelin' days."
Fiona Mountford, Evening Standard
"The compilation musicals merry-go-round has, mercifully, so far skipped the work of Bob Dylan. This is not, rest assured, the Bob Dylan musical, but rather a play, by Conor McPherson, best known for his supernatural drama The Weir, with songs by Dylan silkily interwoven. It is, says McPherson in a programme note, a 'conversation between the songs and the story' and what a conversation it is, beguiling and soulful and quietly, exquisitely, heartbreaking. This is, in short, a very special piece of theatre."
"McPherson, who also directs, has been given free rein here and what dividends that liberal approach pays. We're in Dylan's actual home town of Duluth, Minnesota, but the year is 1934 and the Great Depression is biting hard, with work mighty tricky to come by. ‘We ain't got no net to catch us', says Nick Laine (Ciarán Hinds), who runs a boarding-house drowning in debt. He lives there with his wife Elizabeth (that chameleonic screen star Shirley Henderson), a provocative child-woman succumbing to dementia."
"It resembles nothing so much as a collection of meticulously rendered short stories, soaked in quiet melancholy. There's a faint shimmer of self-conscious American mythologizing – was poverty really ever so poetically elegant? – but no matter. Because then there's the music."
Michael Billington, The Guardian
"Because the songs are so good, it is easy to overlook the economy and skill with which McPherson evokes the mood of 1930s America: the racism that leads the black boxer to be alternately insulted and exploited, the poverty that has highways lined with people living in tents. As director, McPherson has created an astonishingly free-flowing production and the 19-strong cast, which includes three musicians, is so uniformly strong it is tough to pick out individuals."
"Shirley Henderson as Nick's wife gives a mesmerising portrait of a woman unshackled by social convention. But Ciarán Hinds as the stoically suffering Nick, Stanley Townsend as a bankrupt factory owner and Bronagh Gallagher – very handy on drums – as his pill-popping wife are equally striking. And there is fine work from Sheila Atim as Nick's desolate daughter, Arinzé Kene as the fleeing pugilist, Ron Cook as the choric doctor and Jim Norton as the shoe merchant who, lamenting his widowed solitude, says: "You remember a warm light and a smile from long ago." That's a deeply poignant line, and it says much about the fruitful creative marriage of McPherson and Dylan that it might have been written by either of them."
Dominic Cavendish, The Telegraph
"Well, in the case of an earlier attempt to make Dylan's work sing, in a theatrical context, for its supper – the 2006 Twyla Tharp-directed The Times They Are a-Changin'; lots of dancing, lots of circus – even the mass devotion that attends the star wasn't enough to save the show. It was dubbed a 'spectacle of torture' by the New York Times and folded fast on Broadway."
"And ingrate that I am, I have to confess to being a mite underwhelmed by this valiant and undeniably accomplished effort to do something more oblique and intriguing with songs that will outlive us all. McPherson, whose early, masterly storytelling sensation The Weir is reason enough for eternal gratitude, has shepherded some 20 tracks – most of them not obvious choices (you can go whistle for Blowin' in the Wind) – into a populous, otherworldly play that combines the hard grit of the great Depression with something numinous and mysterious."
"You won't have heard Dylan's music this way before: sans whine, sans drawl, sliding in and out of the action, connecting, after a fashion, with characters' sorrowful, yearning, even suicidally inclined states."
Girl From the North Country runs at the Old Vic until 7 October.