Thursday 20 July 2017

Girl from the North Country at the Old Vic, or, Adrift in Minnesota

Note: This is a review of the preview performance on Saturday 15th July 2017. The press night takes place on Wednesday 26th July 2017.

The curse of the new musical strikes again with this show. The cast throw themselves into it, the songs are well performed and in themselves make for enjoyable listening, but the show as a whole, I fear, suffers from significant flaws.

The biggest problems lie with the Conor McPherson's book and the marriage between that book and the Bob Dylan songs. McPherson crams the episodic narrative with incident – two accidental pregnancies, one likely murder of a handicapped boy, a dementia patient, two escaped convicts, various adulteries and so on. I can imagine any one of these narratives providing sufficient drama for one musical. The result is that McPherson struggles to find space to give meaningful depth to these characters, and I felt I just didn't see enough of them to become really emotionally engaged in their plights. There are some other oddities which caused me to raise an Americanist eyebrow. Firstly, I was a little bit dubious about the idea that a white woman in Minnesota would have adopted a black child left on her doorstep in c.1910s (another plot line which is never properly explored) – in general the treatment of race in this show is muddled. Secondly, I question whether Americans in the 1930s went around saying “fuck” - but again I may be wrong. Finally, on the book, McPherson could usefully have another look at the rather rambling ending (a perennial new work problem), and I was left puzzled by who exactly the title is supposed to refer to – there are quite a few candidates another symptom of the narrative's problems of focus.

Then we come to the Dylan songs. In the best musicals, the musical numbers function to deepen our understanding of those singing, or to tell us something in a way that mere spoken words could not. The songs here, pretty much uniformly, fail in this. Sometimes they reinforce a moment, but often the sentiment of the song feels only rather generally related to what has just been happening on stage. At other times, one feels the song is there because the devisers felt audiences would feel short changed if it wasn't – this applies particularly to Like a Rolling Stone and Hurricane. It is difficult to avoid the feeling that the show would have been just as well off, and probably got just as much of an audience, by being a simpler staged concert of Dylan hits performed by these fine musicians. An added peculiarity is the impression I had as the show proceeded that many of the performers were trying to do some kind of Dylan vocal impersonation. Apart from anything else this tended to obscure the lyrics, but it also made it more difficult to see the songs as extensions of, and telling us something about, the characters in the story.

The cast do their best with the limitations of the piece. They strive to bring conviction to the underwritten parts, not helped by some very cliched moments of dialogue. They double effectively as backing singers and instrumentalists. I felt occasional moments of deeper emotional connection. It isn't enough, but it isn't the ensemble's fault.

Overall, the performances of the Dylan songs are enjoyable to hear. The show in which they are embedded is rather less convincing. A pleasant enough evening, but not a great new musical.

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