MusicalNorth East & YorkshireReview

Girl from the North Country – Lyceum Theatre, Sheffield

Reviewer: Jim Gillespie

Writer and Director: Conor McPherson

Music and Lyrics: Bob Dylan

While there are similarities with the jukebox musical genre which has carpet-bagged so much theatre territory in recent years, there is a gulf of class between this touring production and the rest. The reasons for this lie primarily in the creative pedigree of Conor McPherson, and the genius of Bob Dylan. The actors and musicians who take to the stage of Sheffield’s Lyceum Theatre also deserve full credit for gracing those standards with performances of power and sensitivity.

Dylan’s songs often tell their own story. MacPherson takes these and weaves them into a series of interconnected tableaux, played out by the characters whose lives entwine at a seedy boarding house, in Duluth Minnesota, Bob Dylan’s hometown. Nick Laine, played by Colin Connor, runs the guesthouse with the assistance or resistance of other family members. The passing trade of drifters and dreamers, shysters and schemers, bring their own stories with them, against the Steinbeckian background of the Great Depression. While the show first emerged in 2017, pre-pandemic, and pre-global recession, today the atmosphere of 1934 rust belt  America resonates powerfully with a crisis-ridden UK in a bleak midwinter of discontent.

McPherson’s storyline provides much more than a skeleton for Dylan’s music, and the songs are often cut and pasted to better fit the narrative drive of the play, or form asides to reveal the emotional life of the characters. Like theatrical asides they are also generally delivered across the fourth wall, often at a microphone stand, and with other cast members singing backing vocals. The music ranges across Dylan’s catalogue from the early 1960’s to 2012, with Simon Hale’s arrangements reinterpreting classic songs as psalms, hymns, laments, dance anthems, acapella spirituals and anything in between. Forever Young is almost a prayer. The results are astonishing.

This is very much an ensemble production with cast and musicians all engaged in every aspect, but there are some performances which demand acknowledgement. Frances McNamee, playing Elizabeth Laine struggling with dementia, wholly inhabits the character, and stays in role even when belting out a blistering Like a Rolling Stone. Joshua C Jackson, as the boxer with a troubled soul, Joe Scott, wrenches every emotional inch out of Hurricane. Justina Kehinde as Marianne Laine, brings great fragility, with some smarts, to the role, and nails every note she sings. Some of the duets are achingly tender and resonant, especially those between Eve Norris and Gregor Milne, and James Staddon and Rebecca Thornhill. Throughout it all, the acoustic four piece band are flawless.

Set and costumes are absolutely appropriate for the period and the characters, and the staging is economical but not spartan. Only the use of some large scale images on the back of the set sometimes seems a little superfluous. Lucy Hind does a great job as Movement Director in choreographing a cast of 20 actors into such seamless co-ordination, not only in dance numbers but to ensure the flow and energy of the production.

This is not really a collaboration. Bob Dylan has no involvement in the project, although “his people” brought the proposal to McPherson. There is even uncertainty whether Dylan has ever seen it. But that scarcely matters. Artists from Jimi Hendrix to Adele have proved that almost any good artist can make a better fist of his songs than Dylan himself. And despite his Nobel honour, in McPherson, Dylan has chanced upon a writer whose sensibilities can extend the range and depth of his lyrics and give them an expanded hinterland. This would still be a good play without the songs. Not collaboration, but alchemy.

Running until 21st January 2023, before continuing on tour.

The Reviews Hub Score

Gold Dust

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The Yorkshire & North East team is under the editorship of Jacob Bush. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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One Comment

  1. Just got back from seeing this at Sheffield Lyceum Theatre. What a performance from the whole ensemble – and the band… well they deserved a standing ovation of their very own.

    Stunning performance from all concerned and some of the vocals brought tears to my eyes on a number of occasions – absolutely loved it!

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