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Girl From the North Country, Old Vic, review: ‘A bleak but truly powerful experience’

PUBLISHED: 18:15 03 August 2017

Sheila Atim (Marianne Laine) Shirley Henderson (Elizabeth Laine) in Girl From The North Country at The Old Vic. Picture; Manuel Harlan

Sheila Atim (Marianne Laine) Shirley Henderson (Elizabeth Laine) in Girl From The North Country at The Old Vic. Picture; Manuel Harlan

Manuel Harlan

Conor McPherson’s script and direction expertly place Dylan’s music within the plot, an exploration of the racism, poverty and hopelessness of 1930s America

Musicals usually exist in an alternate universe of surreal detachment, where problems are solved by singing a ditty and couples fall in love over the space of one dance.

This is all well and good in the case of Guys and Dolls or An American in Paris where post-war optimism is the prevailing mood – but the Great Depression is not a subject well served by inspiring duets about the limitless power of love.

Girl From the North Country isn’t that kind of musical. Using Bob Dylan’s music as a soundtrack rather than plot device gives the storyline its own agency to develop.

In a run-down boarding house in Minnesota, owner Nick Laine (Ciaran Hinds) is facing crushing debt and a desolate future, while dealing with a wife with dementia, an inert son and an adopted, black daughter who is pregnant and without a partner, unless he can marry her off to an elderly shoe salesman. The guesthouse is a thoroughfare for a broke family, a bible salesman, a boxer on the run, and a widow with whom Nick is having an affair – all are facing as bleak an outlook as each other.

Shirley Henderson’s portrayal of Elizabeth, unfettered by the constraints holding her fellows, is as striking as the moments of clarity that pierce her illness.

Her powerful rendition of Like a Rolling Stone tells everyone’s harrowing story and Sheila Atim’s Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen My Love?) as pregnant Marianne is a moving plea through loneliness.

Simon Hale’s arrangements, for some of the characters, allow them to step temporarily out to act as commentators, and for others, deepen the impact of their struggle.

And the impact is great. Each character has their own strife, and each story is given the space to develop over the course of the play. Conor McPherson’s script and direction expertly place Dylan’s music within the plot, but it is the story itself, the exploration of the crucial elements – the racism, poverty and hopelessness of 1930s America – that make this a truly powerful experience.

5 stars

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