REVIEW: Bob Dylan musical Girl from the North Country is emotional and exhilarating 1 month ago

REVIEW: Bob Dylan musical Girl from the North Country is emotional and exhilarating

The hit Broadway show has come to Ireland.

Within just a few minutes of Girl from the North Country starting, you know already that it’s going a notch above many similar jukebox musicals. Written by Irish playwright Conor McPherson and based around the music of Bob Dylan, right from the outset it transports viewers to a different time and place and for the rest of the show, you would rather be nowhere else.

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That time and place is Duluth, Minnesota in 1934 with Girl from the North Country set in a rundown guesthouse run by Nick Laine, a husband and father under extreme financial pressure. With Nick in the guesthouse is his estranged wife Elizabeth who is living with dementia, his aspiring writer and alcoholic son Gene and his adopted African American daughter Marianne. As the latter is pregnant and the father of the baby is not in the picture, Nick attempts to arrange a marriage between Marianne and an older widower and local shoemaker named Mr. Perry.

On top of this, the show zips between the Laine family’s lives and the diverse group of people who inhabit their guesthouse with which they become entangled. These include a once-promising boxer that has fallen on hard times, a shady bible salesman and a widow who is waiting for her late husband's will to clear and is having an affair with Nick.

After writing plays in the past like The Weir, which took place entirely in a pub in rural Ireland and centred around its patrons telling stories, McPherson knows how to build fully fleshed-out characters and environments. That’s on full display too in Girl from the North Country. Set against the backdrop of the Great Depression, you really get a sense of all its characters trying to achieve a better life for themselves but also their hopes fading after being beaten down by their circumstances and the problems of the era. Each one gets moments of both great humour and sadness, even a potential villainous figure like Mr. Perry who delivers a monologue in the second act about the horrors of growing old that would break your heart.

In terms of Bob Dylan, all the characters in Girl from the North Country feel like they could be the subject of one of his ballads. Plus, by choosing the best Dylan tracks to fit the narrative McPherson wrote – some incredibly popular, some lesser-known – the playwright uses the singer-songwriter’s music as a way of getting into his characters' heads. The songs often serve as a way of showing how the protagonists feel or what their dreams are, things they struggle to express in conversations. They are the light in what could be a quite depressing story but is not.

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Arguably, the strongest element of Girl from the North Country is its musical numbers. Not only has every cast member in the 3Olympia run got a wonderful voice but the instruments are performed by a backing band – and occasionally by the cast - on the stage, further immersing viewers in the music and leaving the show at times feeling less like a play and more like a high-spirited concert.

You really marvel at the actors, who – on top of speaking in Fargo-like accents – must deliver emotional monologues, sing, hit their marks during tightly choreographed musical numbers and sometimes perform instruments. Frances McNamee, who plays Elizabeth, deserves particular praise with her rollicking rendition of ‘Like a Rolling Stone’ arguably being the high point.

Girl from the North Country is no doubt a must-see for Dylan fans in particular. But honestly, it’s hard to imagine anyone who considers themselves a fan of music and storytelling not also being swept up in the show thanks to its emotional depth and exhilarating performances.

Girl from the North Country will be performed at the 3Olympia until Saturday, 30 July.

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Full details on timings and prices can be found here.