Swept up by a rolling stone

Michael Billing­ton en­joys the way that Bob Dyan’s songs have been wo­ven to­gether to cre­ate a mov­ing De­pres­sion­era mu­si­cal

Country Life Every Week - - Contents -

WE’RE used to mu­si­cals cob­bled to­gether from the back cat­a­logues of pop and rock stars. The su­perb Girl from the North Coun­try at London’s Old Vic is, how­ever, in a com­pletely dif­fer­ent class. Ir­ish drama­tist Conor Mcpher­son was ap­proached by Bob Dy­lan’s man­age­ment with the idea of in­cor­po­rat­ing the singer’s mu­sic into a play and the re­sult is a fresh, orig­i­nal and deeply mov­ing work in which the 20 songs re­in­force a fas­ci­nat­ing story about De­pres­sion­era Amer­ica.

Mr Mcpher­son had the bright idea of set­ting the ac­tion in a run­down guest­house in Du­luth, Min­nesota (the song­writer’s birth­place), in 1934, a time when Amer­i­cans were still re­cov­er­ing from the eco­nomic crash, but were hope­ful that Roo­sevelt’s New Deal might change their for­tunes.

That mix­ture of de­spair and frag­ile op­ti­mism is ev­i­dent in the play: the guest­house owner, Nick, is cop­ing with crush­ing debt, a wife with de­men­tia, a layabout son and an adopted, un­mar­ried black daugh­ter who’s heav­ily preg­nant. The guests are a rum lot, too. They in­clude a fi­nan­cially ru­ined fam­ily, a black­mail­ing Bi­ble sales­man and a fugi­tive boxer who has been wrongly im­pris­oned.

The show never de­nies the hard­ship of 1930s Amer­ica: this is a world in which black peo­ple are rou­tinely pa­tro­n­ised or abused and where the high­ways are still marked by peo­ple liv­ing in tents. In­di­vid­ual lives are char­ac­terised by the lone­li­ness Mr Mcpher­son ex­plored so beau­ti­fully in The Weir; a wid­owed shoe-mer­chant, mem­o­rably played by Jim Nor­ton, says: ‘You re­mem­ber a warm light and a smile from long ago’.

The songs echo and am­plify the emo­tions of the char­ac­ters. They are not so much wo­ven into the story as brazenly sung into stand mi­cro­phones, as in a ra­dio broad­cast, but are al­ways ap­pro­pri­ate. Nick’s daugh­ter ex­presses her un­hap­pi­ness in a num­ber that echoes with the re­frain ‘Has any­body seen my love?’. At other times, the songs re­flect group cel­e­bra­tion, as in a ri­otous pre-thanks­giv­ing ren­der­ing of You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere.

Be­cause the songs are so pow­er­ful, it would be easy to un­der­es­ti­mate Mr Mcpher­son’s skill, as drama­tist and di­rec­tor, in telling so many dif­fer­ent sto­ries and main­tain­ing the freeflow­ing ac­tion. In an out­stand­ing cast, I would high­light one par­tic­u­lar per­for­mance: Shirley Hen­der­son is as­ton­ish­ing as Nick’s wife, in that she seems

‘The songs are not so much wo­ven into the story as brazenly sung into stand mi­cro­phones

free of all the in­hi­bi­tions that af­fect the other char­ac­ters; when she breaks into the song

Like a Rolling Stone, the ef­fect

is tremen­dous.

There is also ex­cel­lent work from Ciarán Hinds as the weary pro­pri­etor, Sheila Atim as his vul­ner­a­ble daugh­ter, Stan­ley Townsend as a for­mer fac­tory owner and Bron­agh Gal­lagher, who dou­bles on drums, as his pill-pop­ping wife.

I can’t rec­om­mend too highly a show that re­de­fines what mu­si­cal the­atre can do.

Af­ter the col­lab­o­ra­tive beauty of the Old Vic pro­duc­tion, the Young Vic’s West End pre­sen­ta­tion at the Apollo of Ten­nessee Wil­liams’s Cat on a Hot Tin

Roof seems di­rec­tor-driven. The tal­ented Aus­tralian Bene­dict An­drews had big hits at the Young Vic with Three Sis­ters and A Street­car Named De­sire, but, this time, I feel he’s im­posed him­self heav­ily on a pow­er­ful play about re­al­ity and il­lu­sion, one in which the mar­riage of Mag­gie and Brick founders on the lat­ter’s re­fusal to con­front the in­ten­sity of his feel­ings for his dead friend, Skip­per.

Al­though Mr An­drews does ev­ery­thing pos­si­ble to make the ac­tion seem raw and vis­ceral, the set­ting is more like a gold­plated prison than the Mis­sis­sippi plan­ta­tion spec­i­fied by Wil­liams. There is a lot of nu­dity, with fre­quent glimpses of Brick (the ex­cel­lent Jack O’con­nell) tak­ing a shower, and the ac­tion is up­dated from the 1950s to the present, which seems ab­surd, our cur­rent be­lief in sex­ual tol­er­ance.

Si­enna Miller as a fe­line Mag­gie and Colm Meaney as a vul­gar, death-haunted Big Daddy are per­fectly good, but it’s hard to ban­ish the mem­ory of pre­vi­ous per­for­mances. The play still has the power to dis­turb, but I found my­self yearn­ing for the po­etic re­al­ism that is Wil­liams’s trade­mark.

There is much greater re­al­ism in Deb­o­rah Bruce’s The House

They Grew Up In at the Min­erva, Chich­ester. In fact, Max Jones, who has de­signed the set for this story of two reclu­sive sib­lings ma­rooned in the fam­ily home, has cre­ated an un­for­get­table moun­tain of clutter that must make life hard for the stage man­age­ment.

There are two fine per­for­mances at the heart of the play: Sa­man­tha Spiro as Peppy sug­gests a clever, ed­u­cated woman, steeped in the Clas­sics and art his­tory, whose life has ap­par­ently been re­duced to that of pro­tec­tor of her autis­tic brother.

Daniel Ryan is equally re­mark­able as the brother who has the in­stinc­tive kind­ness of the born soli­tary.

The play only loses cred­i­bil­ity af­ter the un­ex­pected friend­ship be­tween an eight-year-old neigh­bour and the brother is misin­given

ter­preted. Miss Bruce han­dles the sub­ject with great sen­si­tiv­ity; my only com­plaint is that she re­solves the is­sues aris­ing with a touch of magic fairy dust and an un­earned op­ti­mism.

Good as Jeremy Her­rin’s Head­long pro­duc­tion is and ex­cel­lent as the per­for­mances are, I felt that life is not quite the bowl of cher­ries Miss Bruce would have us be­lieve it is. ‘Girl From The North Coun­try’ to Oc­to­ber 7 (0844 871 7628); ‘Cat on a Hot Tin Roof’ to Oc­to­ber 7 (0844 482 9671); ‘The House They Grew Up In’ un­til Au­gust 5 (01243 781312)

Some­thing to sing about: us­ing Bob Dy­lan’s songs, Conor Mcpher­son’s Girl from the North Coun­try is no shal­low ‘juke­box mu­si­cal’

Sur­rounded by a moun­tain of clutter: The House They Grew Up In

Jack O’con­nell and Si­enna Miller in Cat on a Hot Tin Roof

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