Grand Opera House, Belfast

14 – 18 February 2023

 “While the British musical invasion was going on (in the US), Bob Dylan was the man who pulled the American point of view back into focus. At the same time, he had been drawing on Anglo-Celtic folk songs for inspiration. That’s certainly true of Girl From the North Country. It’s got all the elements of beautiful folk writing without being pretentious”.

Rolling Stones guitarist Keith Richards correctly speaks of the way in which Dylan was, in his early days, inspired by the English folk song tradition – the refrain of Girl from the North Country (from his 1963 Freewheeling album) repeats verbatim the lyrics of Strawberry Fair, “Remember me to one who lived there, She once was a true love of mine”.

In an intriguing counterpoint, Irish playwright, screenwriter and director Conor McPherson frequently references American influences in his internationally acclaimed work for stage and screen. So, there is a pleasing symmetry in the suggestion by Dylan’s record company that McPherson might consider writing and directing a stage musical, structured around selected songs from a vast canon of work – a kind of jukebox musical, if you like.

McPherson had never before written a musical and admitted that he would not have considered Dylan, for all his indisputable songwriting and poetic genius, to be a ‘musicals musician.’ As the weeks went by, however, his thoughts turned to one of his own creative mentors, the great Irish-American playwright Eugene O’Neill, in whose large scale dramas, filled with pain and frailty, McPherson started to hear echoes of Dylan’s downbeat take on the human condition.

Dylan grew up in the bleak town of Duluth, Minnesota, a place which the Depression invaded during the early 1930s and held in its grasp for nearly a decade. In a flash of inspiration, McPherson pitched to the record company his idea for an ensemble piece, set in a hardscrabble dustbowl town, ten years or so before the musician was born. He argued that such a concept would not only evade the easy option of a stage bio but would offer opportunities for new treatments and perceptions of the songs themselves.

To some extent, the writer’s initial misgivings are realised in the first act, where his own powerful dramatic skills feel suppressed and disparate, out of sync both with the songs and with Simon Hale’s spine-tingling orchestrations. His creative vision is saved by Rae Smith’s spectacular staging, offset by evocative, mud-coloured set and homespun costumes.

Inside Nick Laine’s (Colin Connor) shabby flophouse, a disparate band of troubled souls is gathered. All are nursing private desperation and unrealisable hopes; nobody is quite as he or she seems. Close to home, Laine’s business is on the point of collapse and bank foreclosure, his wife Elizabeth (Frances McNamee) has retreated alarmingly into early-onset dementia, his son Gene (Gregor Milne) is drowning in booze and depression, his adopted daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde) is pregnant by an unnamed father.

Among their guests, the attractive Mrs. Neilson (Maria Omakinwa) – who is conducting an affair with Laine under the nose of his wife – is waiting on a promise that will never materialise, their family doctor (Chris McHallem) is an addict, the dignified, black pugilist Joe Scott (Joshua C Jackson) is a prison escapee, a travelling pastor Reverend Marlow (Neil Stewart) is a crook, and an apparently affluent couple (James Staddon and Nichola Macevilly) and their angry, man-child son Elias (Ross Carswell), are living on the kindness of strangers.

Enclosed within Mark Henderson’s mellow, chiarascuro lighting, moving seamlessly around a large scrubbed pine table and silhouetted against a vast cyclorama screen on which are projected views of the wintry external landscape, the 19-strong cast and four musicians register like a painting from O’Neill’s epic play The Iceman Cometh.

It’s all very beautiful and emotive and atmospheric, but at the interval questions are asked – where is McPherson’s famed writing, where is the drama, where is the unifying structure, where is the connection to the songs?

Thankfully, most doubts are resolved as the second act kicks in. Racial, social, political, religious prejudices unobtrusively seep in, threatening to to poison the air. McPherson is a master storyteller, a wonderful builder of earthly and unearthly tragedies, which venture disturbingly into the realms of the supernatural and whose trajectories can change at the flick of a switch. Gradually, he weaves a tangled web of tentative narratives, directing them subtly towards the very soul of the songs.

Tales of the unexpected morph into songs of the unexpected, from Gene and Katherine’s (Frankie Hart) swoony I Want You and Mrs. Neilson’s seductive Señor to close-knit gospel harmonies and Elizabeth’s defiant Like a Rolling Stone – the highlight of a quite remarkable individual performance by McNamee, careering between outspoken senility and childlike dependence, challenging all and sundry to feel what she feels, to see what she sees, to walk in her unlaced leather boots.

Girl from the North Country is far removed from standard musical theatre fare. Writer and musician stand tall in their own right, while rarely linking hands in meaningful communion. The music, sung and played live as an integral part of the action, is spellbinding but enfolds rather than advances the storyline and McPherson’s bewitching characterisations. The staging and the performers take the interlocking storylines onto other levels of imagination and experience, leaving behind a sense of something extraordinary, something otherwordly, something undefinable, something quite like no other.

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