REVIEW: Girl From The North Country, “the Bob Dylan musical” knockin’ on heaven or hell’s door at York Theatre Royal *****

An ensemble scene in the Duluth boarding house in Girl From The North Country. Picture: Johan Persson

THERE has been a previous Bob Dylan musical: a dance one set “somewhere between awake and asleep” in a dreamy circus of clowns and contortionists, spun around a coming-of-age conflict by director-choreographer Twyla Tharp.

Would it surprise you to learn that the Broadway run of The Times They Are A-Changin’ ground to a halt after only 35 previews and 28 performances in November 2006?

Girl From The North Country just sounds more apt: written and directed by Conor McPherson, elegiac Dublin playwright of The Weir, who had been sent a box gift of 60 career-spanning Dylan CDs by Bob’s management with free rein to select songs to wrap his story around.

That story is set in Duluth, Minnesota, birthplace of one Robert Zimmerman, as The Depression weighed as heavy as stones on saint Margaret Clitherow, in the America of November 1934, a place of racism, broken businesses and abused women.

Eli James’s Reverend Marlowe works his salesman’s pitch on Ross Carswell’s Elias Burke in Girl From The North Country. Picture: Johan Persson

Nothing is glitzy about Rae Smith’s scenic staging: a boarding house of worn furniture and worn, lost souls, complemented by panoramic backdrops in black and white.

And yes, McPherson’s cast of 19 actor-musicians do dance, but, like the revolving door of stories blown in on the wind, the pace tends to be slow in Simon Hale’s orchestrations and arrangements, unhurried, some in waltz time, peppered with sporadic bursts of freewheelin’ joy and abandon.

Narrated by the local doctor, weaving his way in and out of the plot as much as the 20 Dylan songs, McPherson’s episodic drama of troubles past, present and in-bound, has the widowed, weary Dr Walker (Chris McHallem) guiding the to and fro of drifters and dreamers, scammers and schemers “trying to figure out their lives” as they pass through the welcome-all boarding house.

If one Dylan chorus were to sum up McPherson’s Eugene O’Neill-inspired story of dysfunctional families, love lost, love never found, and the dangers in strangers, it would be: “How does it feel, ah how does it feel/To be on your own, with no direction home/Like a complete unknown, like a rolling stone.”

Frances McNamee’s Elizabeth Laine and James Staddon’s Mr Burke. Picture: Johan Persson

There may be the hubhub of life, the constant interaction, and yet the abiding state of being is one of loneliness. On your own, even when surrounded. As sung by Elizabeth, the demented wife of exhausted, despairing, play-away proprietor Nick Laine (a tinderbox Colin Connor), Like A Rolling Stone is indeed “Dylan as you’ve never heard him sung before”, all the more so for the voice emanating from Frances McNamee, winner of the UK Theatre Award for her performance as Meg Dawson in Sting’s musical The Last Ship, as seen at York Theatre Royal in June 2018.

McNamee is even more remarkable here, drawing more tears at the finale in the hopeful Forever Young, and taking the acting honours too. Elizabeth, much more than the narrator, is the key voice of truth here, lacking a filter to tone down her thoughts. For all her madness, she is as unguarded, outspoken and eccentrically funny as a Shakespearean Fool. Her silences and juddering, impromptu dancing speak volumes too.

Significantly, to emphasise the loneliness of each character “standing at a turning point in their lives, searching for a future, hiding from the past and facing unspoken truths about the present”, each song is delivered from the front, directly to the audience, not to fellow characters.

This is particularly affecting in I Want To You, a duet where, side by side, the Laines’ writer son Gene (Gregor Milne in his outstanding professional debut) and Katherine Draper (Eve Norris) say what they could never express to each other or bring to fruition, blighted by  circumstance.

Writer-director Conor McPherson in rehearsal with James Staddon and Frances McNamee for Girl From The North Country. Picture: Johan Persson

McPherson talked of his “little stories” of failing men and the women they fail being like parables in the Bible, simple, human, rather than political statements, made meaningful by Dylan’s songs. They are, it should be said, made even more meaningful by multiple excellent performances that both devastate and uplift you.

Joshua C Jackson’s Joe Scott, a wrongly imprisoned black boxer seeking a new life, and Justina Kehinde’s Marianne, the Laines’ adopted black daughter, are particularly impactful. Nichola MacEvilly understudied most ably for Keisha Amponsa Banson as Mrs Neilsen on press night, and Teddy Kempner (Mr Perry), Ross Carswell (Elias Burke) and James Staddon’s insufferable Mr Burke add much to the torrid tales.

Far removed from the glut of jukebox musicals or the glittering campery of plenty more, Girl From The North Country is more in keeping with the emotional punch, the highs and the lows, the sadness and the joy of Billy Elliot, Once or Spring Awakening.

Oh, and who can resist the sight of Rebecca Thornhill’s heavy-drinking Mrs Burke playing drums in a red dress or Carswell’s nod to Dylan in playing the mouth organ?! Not forgetting a round of applause for the band, The Howlin’ Winds, especially Ruth Elder’s violin and mandolin.

Girl From The North Country runs at York Theatre Royal until tomorrow (10/9/2022). Performances: 7.30pm tonight; 2.30pm, 7.30pm tomorrow. Box office: 01904 623568 or Further Yorkshire dates: Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, November 29 to December 3; Sheffield Lyceum Theatre, January 17 to 21.

Justina Kehinde’s Marianne Laine singing out front in Girl From The North Country. Picture: Johan Persson