This is VERY Dylan.
I don’t like musicals. In fact, it’s a joke in the Niche Magazine office that I only attend musicals that my colleagues are in! However, I went to the opening night of the touring double Olivier and Tony award-winning West End smash hit musical Girl from the North Country last night at Curve and I absolutely loved it. I mean, I really loved it.
Sure, it only actually lured me in because of the fact that it featured a Bob Dylan song and whilst we are here on this review intro, I want to share that I am one of THE biggest Dylan fans I know. Therefore, this musical was in some treacherous waters for me – was it going to upset me in its presentation of one of my favourite artists of all time?
Would it be stylish enough? Would it capture Dylan’s ability to tell a story, to connect with lyrics that are nothing short of poetry – something I have worked hard to prove in my uni days via a dissertation that was basically a Bob Dylan Novella. Crucially, would it be cool enough?
Celebrated playwright Conor McPherson (The Weir, The Seafarer) chooses to set the scene in 1934 in the heartland of America where we meet a fragmenting family in their crumbling and financially unstable guesthouse. But as they search for a future and try to run from the past, they discover the present is frightening too.
Not a Bob Dylan story, but rather a story drawing inspiration from the heart of Bob Dylan songs, the style of the musical numbers is punctuated throughout the backdrop of. For me, it works.
It’s as if they work together pushing and pulling the plot in its general direction but without a solid direction, much like many of us in our lives. It all ebbs and flows and changes shape as it goes. This is VERY Dylan.
Much of his early work in particular is based around tales of directionless travel, folk stories of messy lives and hardship full of characters and movement.
What works is that the songs support the plot, and the plot supports the songs. To be honest, I am not entirely sure what I am getting at here but it works in its subtlety. In its heart, it’s poetic and much like the way music supports vocals and vocals support music in any song. The characters feel like characters in Bob Dylan songs, they belong with them and to them, much like when you connect with his songs yourself.
Singing out to the audience often via microphones and instruments which would only be found in the 1930s and with musicians not in the pit but positioned in the corner of the stage was another huge highlight for me. It made it more stylish, more authentic somehow. This was particularly great in the bar scene where violinists and guitarists were part of the ‘party’.
With nods to Dylan’s musical style in each song - even if the arrangements were entirely re-worked - were subtle and unassuming. The set and costume designs were also really, really good. Seamlessly, almost lyrically moving from by the river, in the bar, in the guesthouse and back again, they allowed the ensemble to be performing even in the shadows. It was a haunting effect especially when paired with the effecting choreographed movement.
I experienced a slight ‘dip’ in energy for the first half of the second act with an ever so slightly disconnected scene and song that felt surplus to requirement. But, it soon picked up again as we got to grittier scenes.
There has to be notable mention of the re-imagined nature of Dylan’s work. The rendition of 'Like a Rolling Stone' from Frances McNamee was unpredictable, surprising and not without the playful humour of Dylan when he performs these days. 'Hurricane' (a personal fave) was the truest to the original. I particularly enjoyed Joshua C Jackson’s vocal and the use of rhythm from the ensemble to ‘play the drums’ during.
Apparently, Bob personally loved the story, giving it his blessing when he first read the script. And, as a self-certified Dylan snob with the man himself looking at me from my home office mantelpiece, for what it’s worth, I give it my full blessing too.
See Girl from the North Country until this Saturday, March 11.