Girl from the North Country: In a Depression-era musical, Dylan’s music gives everyone a leg-up

Theatre review: Uplifting epilogue reminds us what perseverance sounds like, before the winds of change blow in. It sounds like Dylan

Girl from the North Country

3Olympia Theatre, Dublin
Rating: 5/5

At the beginning of Conor McPherson’s tremendous musical, set in 1930s Minnesota during the chill of the Great Depression, someone describes a struggling guesthouse that displays a sign in its door: “No company allowed.” A notice in the porch says: “Three’s a crowd.” By this point, it is clear to just about everyone in the audience that these are the cockeyed lyrics of Bob Dylan.

Having charmed audiences on the West End and Broadway, the jukebox musical arrives in Dublin, where after Once: The Musical and Come from Away it feels like another lock-in. The pit orchestra resembles a live band, as instruments are found throughout the guesthouse, waiting for residents to play them.

If those aforementioned musicals appeared twee or saccharine, McPherson’s book isn’t as easy to reconcile. At its centre, Nick (the guesthouse owner, nicely played by Colin Connor) is up to his neck in financial debt, while caring for a wife who has slipped into early-onset dementia (Frances McNamee). Admirably, McPherson has written the character to trigger as much unease as sympathy, giving him an affair with a hotel guest, and sending him to arrange a match between his pregnant daughter Marianne (Justina Kehinde) and a business owner several decades older than her.

The advantage here is that the lyrics are torn from the pages of one of America’s greatest songbooks. “I’ll go along with the charade / Until I can think my way out,” sings Kehinde’s Marianne with youthful resolve, during Tight Connection to My Heart (Has Anyone Seen my Love). The arrival of a former convict resembles that of a romantic interest, but also, in Joshua C Jackson’s impressive brawn, Rubin Carter, the boxer from Dylan’s Hurricane.

It’s extraordinary what can happen when Dylan’s lyrics are dropped into the throats of others. “There’s a slow, slow train comin’ up around the bend,” sings Jackson, with promise, playing a black man in the Jim Crow era. For Jokerman, a group of women unite to have a private quorum: “Freedom just around the corner for you / But with truth so far off, what good will it do?” The music seems to be giving everyone a leg-up.

That Like a Rolling Stone is given to McNamee’s Elizabeth, frustrated with dementia and often consigned to observe others’ dramas, lends its chorus added scorn: “How does it feel?”

Not all the lyrical matchmaking makes sense. During songs like Señor, it feels like we’re supposed to pay attention to the folky tenacity (“Let’s overturn these tables”) rather than the details (what does the gypsy “with a broken flag” have to do with things?). Against that ambiguity, McPherson seizes a more secure connection to his past plays, giving the guesthouse the evocative feel of a candlelit ghost story.

If we are to be haunted by anything, it is America’s tumultuous histories, in which the musical’s family will sadly separate and disappear. Yet, an uplifting epilogue reminds us what perseverance sounds like, before the winds of change blow in. It sounds like Dylan.

Runs until 30th July. 3olympia.ie

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture