Bending Bob backwards

An appreciation of Girl from the North Country

This is a quality production.

It is not, and does not claim to be, a musical.  It is a play with music.  It is a very good play with very good music and as seen at the Lowry on 21st September 2022, it was very well performed. The production, which has numerous production credits, was first performed at The Old Vic in 2017. It was written by Conor McPherson with music and Lyrics taken from Bob Dylan’s back catalogue.
McPherson made the inspired decision to set the play in Duluth, the town of Dylan’s birth, but a decade before Bob was born. This gives the music and the associated plot a degree of detachment from the songwriter that actually serves to further enhance his compositions.  They are seen and heard in a context that, presumably, not even Dylan himself considered when composing them, and they stand up well against that background.  The second inspired choice was to only use instruments from the set period, and so we have a violin, mandolin, piano, guitars, double bass and drums. It sounds great.

The production is also restrained in its use of modern technology. Scenic projections are used impressively but sparingly and lighting is traditional in its application. Actors are miked and there is a degree of musical amplification but at a level surely acceptable even to those aficionados who famously denigrated Dylan for going electric. 

The structure and style of the drama is reminiscent of the work of Tennessee Williams, a feel partly evoked by the 1930s setting, but also by the nature of the characters and their integration into the drama.  There are multiple backstories tied together by reason of the characters being resident in the same hotel. Some guests are long-staying and hence the professional and the personal have become blurred and blended. As with Williams’ work, the characters’ stories are heartfelt and inspiring.  This is the era of the Great Depression in the USA and the hotel, its management, residents and visitors are all to some degree victims of that.  Like everyone at all times, they are also victims of circumstance.
The configuration of this drama also echoes the work of Joan Littlewood as produced in her theatre workshop shows of the 1950s and 1960s. It is not in a technical sense epic theatre as her shows often were. There are no alienation techniques or agit-prop props. Neither is it overly political as was invariably the case with Littlewood, but there is a social conscience at the heart of Girl from the North Country, and the structure is similarly compounded, comprising of a fairly evenly shared theatrical loading. There is both a central character and a central plot thread, but each of those are so closely sheathed by the other roles and their narrative strings that what we are given is a dramatic cord, aged, faded and dust-encrusted but of unquestionable worth, heritage and veracity.  

By modern standards this is a generous cast of twenty or so, with some fluidity between musicians and actors.  That establishes an authority of presentation (one character each – no doubling) and generates a generosity from the audience as we instinctively respond to being well-furnished with a hearty ensemble. 
My one complaint is that the direction did not permit the audience to satisfyingly supply its side of the essential theatrical dialogue.  The songs were slotted in seamlessly – too seamlessly. They did not fall into the cliché of soliciting adulation by power-ballad closing crescendo, or mighty major chord horsewhipping. They were rounded off fittingly, but were invariably impeccably delivered and we wanted to show our appreciation, yet the cast frequently spoke over our applause, rudely censoring us.  As the show is well bedded in to its current tour, one can only deduce that the rebuff is a directorial directive. The desire to sustain the pace and the attitude to not ‘milk’ the crowd is laudable, but the audience response is sacred. It should not be profaned.

Other aspects of the show acknowledged our presence. We were permitted the space to laugh, and the role of the medic was harnessed as a narrator, which is a very efficient method of contextualising the action for us. The songs were sung directly to us rather than to other characters, and while there is no essential awkwardness in that, why then not accept the applause of those that have just been provisioned? It’s one of the ways we pay.
That complaint aside, the show is splendid.  It will not be to everyone’s taste.  Not being a musical per se, it is not designed to induce whooping and dancing. Thank the lord. It’s a serious script, with some humour and seriously good music. As with all good drama, while sitting beautifully in its set period, it’s themes are timeless.

It is a wonderfully inclusive cast but not assembled for tick-box correctness. White, black and those between played the roles that, for better or worse, were true to the time and place of the story.  Prejudice is to the fore - not just that associated with race, but also with disability, gender, approved sexuality, religious camouflage and apparent liquidity.

Everyone delivers immaculately, and it feels discriminatory to single one out, but Frances McNamee’s portrayal of demented dementia is worth the ticket price alone. Whether she be finding fleas or exposing excruciating hypocrisy she is a woman possessed, but perhaps not quite as possessed as she pertains to be. Inspirational inspired acting.
Little in this hotel is quite as it first seems, and that ultimately is the interesting and worthwhile core of this rolling gemstone of a play. It is vintage theatre contemporaneously harmonised in every sense.  Evidently, Dylan gave his approval, and it is doubtful than any of his fans will disagree, but you need not have heard a note of his tunes or a word of his lyrics to comprehensively appreciate this show.

More. . .

For more thoughts on making worthwhile theatre click on this pic:

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