Apparently Colin McPherson was amazed when Bob Dylan’s management called and asked if he wanted to write a show with Dylan’s music. Best known for his huge hit, The Weir, which he wrote when he was 25, McPherson was given complete artistic control, despite never having written a musical before. It’s no surprise then to discover that ‘Girl from the North Country’ (which he also directed) doesn’t fit into any familiar musical mould. Although It includes 20 of Dylan’s songs from across the breadth of his back catalogue, it’s no cynical juke-box show of Dylan’s greatest hits, nor does it fit into the tradition of great musical theatre writers, who have honed the relationship between song and drama so that they appear to belong together. McPherson describes this unusual hybrid as ‘a conversation between the songs and the story.’

Set in a guest-house in Duluth, Minnesota, where Dylan himself was born, the colours are muted and the stage is a tumble of wooden furniture back-lit by a huge bright projection of a lake that opens and closes, illuminating the stage before plunging it back into darkness. It’s the depression era of the early 1930’s (some years before Dylan’s birth in 1941). Gene Laine (Colin Bates) knows he cannot afford to keep his business open much longer. His wife Kate Laine has dementia and their adopted daughter Marianne is pregnant, with no partner or prospects. Gloria Obianyo gives a magnetic, brooding performance as Marianne with extraordinary unusual vocals. But probably the most exciting role is Elizabeth Laine, (Katie Brayben) who has a magical kind of dementia gives her a wild girlish energy and the ability to see the truth. Or maybe it’s just that she is given the freedom to be different in this world teetering on the edge.

Twenty actors and musicians play the rich cast of the eccentric residents and locals, who refuse to give up hope, coming together to sing and dance in the face of poverty and pain. Rather than singing to each other, the songs are turned out to the audience using 30’s style mics and instruments of the period so that they become commentators on their world as well as participants. The relationship between McPherson’s winding story and Dylan’s music feels uncertain or unresolved one minute and flashes with brilliance the next. Whether or not it satisfies as a piece of musical theatre, there are some unique interpretations of Dylan’s music and extraordinary monologues from the fascinating cast of characters. And in the final image of the depleted family eating around the table, there is a beautiful silence.

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