Imagine you go to a gig. A tribute act for a major artist. Twenty people or more performing in the band. Mixing famous classics with lesser known tracks. All of them are performed to the highest quality and in interesting ways.
Now imagine that they don’t stop for applause. They don’t talk to the crowd. They don’t introduce members of the band as they go through. Instead, between the songs a play is performed. A narrative about the lives of people in a boarding house in Duluth, Minnesota, 1934. The home town of the artist a few years before he was born.
What you are imagining is as close as I can come to describing Girl From The North Country. It’s not a musical. It’s not a play. It’s not a concert. It’s certainly not the Bob Dylan show, in the same way Mamma Mia is for Abba and We Will Rock You is for Queen. This is a small drama about people’s lives interspersed with songs that are related in emotion or content, but aren’t about the drama or containing plot points.
And it is beautiful, in every way I can describe it. The acting performances, the singing, the staging, the use of music, the story… it all comes together to an experience that transcends any normal description of an evening at a theatre in London.
Perhaps the easiest thing I can say is that you don’t have to be a fan of Bob Dylan. You don’t even need to know his extraordinary catalogue of songs, because they don’t want this to be a rendition of the ‘greats’, this is about using the exact right song, la chanson juste.
Even the songs you recognise might be unrecognisable. In the same way Dylan himself uses different stylings on different songs, some are turned from joy to heartbreak, from something of anger to something sombre. Songs are even combined in surprising ways – lyrics, backing music, and styles melded to create a new rendition. The above version of Hurricane differs only very slightly Dylan’s track, but ends up in Idiot Wind being performed further from the original than I thought possible.
I have to comment on Shirley Henderson as Elizabeth, the wife suffering from dementia but not debilitated by it. Her physicality, constant presence, and all round performance were truly remarkable. In a show filled with superb performances from a stellar cast, she shone the brightest.
Running at the Old Vic until October 7th, I would urge everyone to see this. I am sure I will be seeing it again before its run is through.