"A unique piece of theatre" - our verdict on Girl from the North Country at Sheffield Lyceum

BOB Dylan’s songs reflect the struggles of generations coming up against the reality of the American dream in new show, Girl from the North Country.

BOB Dylan’s songs reflect the struggles of generations coming up against the reality of the American dream.

So Conor McPherson’s “conversations between the songs and the story” — set during the depression-hit 1930s in the Minnesota town where Dylan grew up — creates a unique piece of theatre.

Some 19 Dylan songs are performed, including the more familiar Slow Train, Like A Rolling Stone, Idiot Wind, Jokerman and Hurricane and others less well known, but all given a fresh take that makes them virtually unrecognisable but incredibly potent.

McPherson, writer of the acclaimed The Weir, who had never written a musical before, weaves a number of stories together, with Dylan’s poetic lyrics giving voice to the marginalised poor, downtrodden women and blacks fighting racism daily, bringing to mind Steinbecks The Grapes Of Wrath.

The scene is set by local medic Dr Walker (nicely played by Chris McHallem). Set in an old boarding house run by careworn dreamer Nick Laine, who’s struggling to take care of his ill and unhappy wife Elizabeth alongside the needs of his children and guests, while trying and failing to keep the bank at bay, the various sad tales unfold.

Colin Connor convinces as Nick, a beaten man using gallows humour to keep a grip on his temper, as he tries desperately to find a way out, while seeking solace in the arms of guest Mrs Neilson. 

Frances McNamee, as his wife, is cleverly playful and testing to all those around her, while possessing a sensational voice for a heartbreaking version of Like a Rolling Stone and others.

Daughter Marianne (a sparkling Justina Kehinde) was taken in by the Laines as a baby but is now pregnant and her father wants her to marry off an elderly shoe businessman (Teddy Kempner as the hapless Mr Perry) to pay off his debts.

Son Gene, played by the excellent Owen Lloyd, is an aspiring writer who drinks too much, crushed by the weight of it all.

Mrs Neilson, in a charming portrayal by Maria Omakinwa, waits in vain for cash from her husband's will so that she and Nick can escape together.

As the cost of living crisis deepens, this is an intelligent, resonant play for today which manages to be both depressing yet hopeful at the same time.

Dylan's own Theme Time Radio Hour show highlighted singers down the decades and here each character authentically sings into an old microphone as the words compliment the drama.

All the cast are superb, with great vocals and acting skills.

Joshua C. Jackson, as prizefighter Scott — a character so like the boxer Hurricane in the song — has a great voice and commanding stage presence. Ross Carswell is tremendous as Elias Burke, the Lennie role in Steinbeck’s Of Mice And Men.

James Staddon, as the flawed Mr Burke, a victim of the US economic crash and Rebecca Thornhill as protective mother Mrs Burke, both impress in acting and vocals, while Eli James makes for a suitably seedy bible seller as Rev Marlowe.

Dylan’s songs draw on all his influences, from gospel to folk to blues, helping McPherson create an emotional, heady brew, backed in style by musicians The Howlin’ Winds.

But one Dylan song missing from the show, his prophetic A Hard Rain’s A-Gonna Fall, probably sums up it up best.

Girl From The North Country is at Sheffield Lyceum until Saturday

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