REVIEW: Girl from the North Country - Original London Cast

Recording CoverBilled as a 'play with songs' rather than a musical, Conor McPherson's Girl from the North Country, now in the final week of a run at London's Old Vic, has proved to be one of the summer's sleeper hits. In the early part of the run, discounts were readily available, but the final performances are completely sold out. There's every chance the show will have some kind of further life elsewhere; in the meantime, the cast recording makes a strong case for it as an unusual, sometimes achingly beautiful piece of music theatre.

Set in Minnesota during the 1930s, McPherson's script is built around twenty or so Bob Dylan songs, but it doesn't quite function like a conventional musical. Instead of trying to make the songs carry the narrative, McPherson deploys them as a kind of live soundtrack to his play, carefully weaving them around the dialogue so that they either amplify or comment on the grab-bag of depression-era hard-luck stories that make up the plot. It isn't a greatest hits show – you won't hear Blowin' in the Wind – and the aim is not to create a Bob Dylan equivalent of something like Mamma Mia. Rather, the impetus behind McPherson's script appears to be to use Dylan's songs to unlock the poetry hidden in ordinary lives – and to allow the characters and context to unlock, in turn, the poetry in the songs themselves.

Thanks to Simon Hale's lovely musical arrangements and a set of flawless performances from the show's ensemble cast, the effort is largely successful. These are stripped-down musical arrangements – keys, guitar, violin/mandolin, and upright bass, with some additional musical contributions, mostly drums and harmonica, from the actors – but their sparseness is perfectly appropriate for these songs, and several of the performances are very fine indeed. This is an ensemble piece, so everyone gets a moment in the spotlight; not quite everyone gets their moment on this cast recording, though, since Ciaran Hinds's guest-house owner Nick, the show's nominal lead, is a non-singing role. The standouts are Shirley Henderson (here sounding strikingly reminiscent of Alison Fraser), whose devastating, plangent take on Like a Rolling Stone closes the show's first act, and the remarkable Sheila Atim, who finds every last scrap of feeling in Tight Connection To My Heart. Elsewhere, there are standout performances from Arinzé Kene (Hurricane), Jack Shalloo (Duquesne Whistle), Kirsty Malpass (the title song), and especially Debbie Kurup (Went To See The Gypsy).

It would be nice if the album's packaging included a synopsis, but one isn't essential: Girl from the North Country is a mood piece, and in the theatre the best approach is to treat it as a kind of theatrical tone poem. It's an idiosyncratic, sui generis piece of theatre; because of the way the music is used in the theatre, the album can't hope to communicate how moving the show is, but it does showcase Hale's beautiful arrangements and a memorable set of performances. Cast recordings of jukebox shows often sound plastic in comparison with the original performances of their songs; the best compliment I can pay this recording is that it doesn't. This is a warmly human, sometimes revelatory performance of a very strong set of songs that just happen to have existed before the show was created, and it's as theatrical as any cast recording you'll hear this year. Even if you think you don't like Dylan (and there are people who would stone me for admitting this, but I tend to prefer his songs when he isn't singing them), this is more than worth your time.


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