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
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
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