REVIEW: Girl from the North Country - Edinburgh Playhouse

Bob Dylan probably wasn’t in attendance at the Edinburgh Playhouse last night, Tuesday, October 18, at the opening of a five-day run of the award-winning musical play Girl From the North Country, inspired by and featuring many of both his most famous and lesser-known songs.

The cast of Girl From the North Country. (Photo: John Persson)
The cast of Girl From the North Country. (Photo: John Persson)

I say probably, as His Bobness had a rare night off from his ongoing ‘Rough and Rowdy Ways’ tour, ahead of four nights at the London Palladium, and could have sneaked into the theatre unnoticed in his now-trademark black hoodie.

Dylan did just such a thing during a performance of the play, written and directed by Dublin-born Conor McPherson, in New York last year.

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In a very un-Dylan-like admission he revealed that he was so moved by the production it brought him to tears.

It’s easy to see why the legendary singer-songwriter was so enamoured; North Country is a dazzling production in many ways.

The play is set in a boarding house in Bob’s hometown of Duluth, Minnesota, during the early 1930’s.

The down-at-heel establishment is full of grifters and drifters, folks struggling to keep their heads above water amid the economic woes of the Great Depression.

As the lives of these wayward souls unravel Dylan songs – 19 in total – are cleverly interwoven throughout, punctuating the grim but ultimately uplifting storyline.

There are a plethora of highlights with the songs re-imagined in various musical forms.

Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love?), jaunty-jolly as performed by Dylan on 1985’s Empire Burlesque album, is here delivered impeccably by Justina Kehinde as a weary lament for lost love; Ross Carswell kicks up the dust with a show-stopping Duquesne Whistle, the croakily-delivered train song from 2012’s Tempest; while Frances McNamee’s rousing performance of Like a Rolling Stone reminded us that the song still packs an emotional and musical punch 57 years after it was released.

The exemplary cast really deliver on all the songs, culminating in a lifting-the-roof-off performance of the Gospel classic Pressing On, from 1980’s Saved.

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The only downer – in terms of mood and quality – was the dialogue between songs, which felt over-wrought and, at times, pedestrian, resembling something of a cross between sub-par Eugene O’Neill or Tennessee Williams.

Happily the cast rose above it, delivering at full-throttle a musical play that shines a deserving light on Dylan’s timeless and thought-provoking songs.

Girl from the North Country is at the Edinburgh Playhouse until Saturday, October 22.