Extra: Girl from the North Country

I decided to spend an afternoon traveling in the North Country fair but sadly wished that I’d never taken leave of London Town. (To see what prompted my going, see Five Things Extra: That Dylan Play, where two friends with opposing views write about it).

Honestly, upfront I have to say that there’s more nuance and depth of character in a silent movie than there is in Girl from the North Country. Yes, I speak as a slightly reluctant attendee, but not because I was proprietorially feeling How dare they… or snottily assuming critical feelings about a work in another medium purloining Bob’s songs to its own ends. I’m not even sure that I would have been offended by Ben Elton scripting a play based around these songs, as he had done for Queen. And – also honestly – the music, arranged by Simon Hale, is delivered beautifully, with sensitive guitar, piano, bass, and fiddle accompaniment that manages to mostly stay away from a Mumford hoedown, and deliver true heft behind some good singing.

But, dramatically speaking, well… Nothing here made me feel that the writer, Conor McPherson, had any understanding of these people and their problems in this small midwestern town. The plot seemed laughably dated, cobbled together from offcuts of Steinbeck, O’Connor, and O’Neill. Slow-witted lunk? Check. Old rich man who thinks money can buy him the love of a poor but pretty girl? Check. Con man masquerading as a bible salesman? Check. Boarding-House owner with debts and a mistress? Check. Black convict trying to escape… I could work my way through the cast, but you get the drift.

There’s an almost offensive use of dementia as a dramatic device, with Shirley Henderson having to play the afflicted wife of Nick, the Boarding House owner. From the back of the stalls she looks too young (even if she isn’t in life) and plays her as a sexually incontinent, gratuitously swearing Manic Pixie Dream Girl. Really. Bits of business at the boarding house ( in a variety of clunky American accents) get interspersed with musical moments that are meant to round out character and story, but for every line that fits, there are two that seem tangential or just plain weird. “Sign on the Window” and “Went to See the Gypsy” (with its mention of “that little Minnesota town”) work at the start, but “Señor” (“Señor, señor, do you know where we’re headin’? Lincoln County Road or Armageddon?”) seems to carry a heavier apocalyptic load than these flimsy characters can bear.

And while it was great to hear songs from, say, the Empire Burlesque period, where Dylan’s own versions have weak or unlistenable production, some decisions didn’t come off. Especially in the case of “I Want You”, sung in counterpoint to a reprise of “Like a Rolling Stone”. Slowing the song’s essential skipping beat to a funereal pace and disastrously over-enunciating the lyrics (Musical Theatre Alert!) rendered those beautiful rolling and tumbling lines (“The guilty undertaker sighs/The lonesome organ grinder cries/The silver saxophones say I should refuse you”) dead on arrival. It also contained the unfortunate call and response of…
“How does it feel…” (LaRS)
“So bad…” (IWY)

I thought Bronagh Gallagher the most impressive singer (she also played very tidy drums on a few songs) especially on “Sweetheart Like You”/True Love Tends to Forget”, but I found myself more than once involuntarily leaning forward and putting my head in my hands. I didn’t want to ruin anyone’s enjoyment of the performance so I had to stop myself emitting weary sighs, but by halfway through the second half, I felt my patience being stretched thin, as thin as the dramatic arc of the story.

Thinking about the success of the play (it’s transferring to the West End soon), and the standing ovations at the finale, I wondered if there are people who go to see every musical in the West End, regardless of type. I heard the people behind me say that they must go home and listen to this Dylan guy, and I don’t mention that as a criticism. What I do think is that the bar is set too low if this farrago gets five stars from Michael Billington in The Guardian.

As I walked back to my car, I scanned through my iPhone for some music to clear my head. Brian Ferry irreverently blasting out “Hard Rain” fitted the bill as I pulled out from the Cut and onto Waterloo Bridge. When, a few songs later, Lou Reed’s “Dirty Blvd.” burst out of the speakers, I pulled over and listened, powerfully struck by the fact that he paints – with shocking detail – a fully rounded and realised story in the three and a half minutes it takes to play out. Dreams, inequality, racism, celebrity, poverty, politics, and violence. All vividly brought to life. Three and a half minutes. The last two and a half hours is just wasted time.


  1. bruce millar says:

    You nailed it, Martin.

  2. Ha, this is brilliant! I think I made the right choice in skipping this production!



    I am very grateful to you for saving me the considerable expense of seeing this show about which my grave doubts appear to be fully justified. I now only need someone to listen to the full 8 CD version of Trouble No More in order to help me make a decision about that!

  4. The divergent reviews this play gets are remarkable. Billington wasn’t the only broadsheet reviewer to give it 5 stars but others called it a disaster. Nothing in between. The disparity between the views of your two friends, one who loved it and one who walked out, forced you to go and see for yourself. Now I also feel an urge to see it for myself, if only to understand this divergence. But…no – I think I’ll save my money and take your word on it, Martin. Thanks.

  5. I’m the friend who “loved it” – in kevincheeseman’s above comment. But I wasn’t delivering an uncritical rave. I thought a lot of the musical arrangements and singing were marvelous, as did Martin. Jokerman, License To Kill, True Love Tends To Forget, Sign On The Window, Sweetheart Like You all sounded vivid and heard anew. I Want You, Senor, All Along The Watchtower were less successful. I also thought the play resembled a theatre workshop throwing themes and images from Steinbeck and Eugene O’Neill into the mix, and they don’t always work. Unrepentant, I still think there is something odd and original McPherson’s production. As if the songs were the unconscious thoughts of the characters. I gave Bob’s music 5 points and the play 3 points. I remember an ad for Antonioni’s film Zabriskie Point which printed critics who loved it on one side of the page and critics who loathed it on the other. In the middle in a large type face: It’s not a gap. it’s an abyss.

  6. I guess it is an abyss! And you shouldn’t take my word over anyone else’s, it was just a very visceral feeling that I had about it – I often feel that theatre gets an easy ride from the critics…

  7. I enjoyed the play. I thought McPherson was inspired to set the action in the 1930s, which enabled him to steer well clear of the oft-peddled clichés about Dylan the ‘icon’. I agree with Martin’s comments about the thinness of characterisation, and yes the play was stuffed with stock characters. However, this didn’t bother me in the least. It gave more focus to the music – presumably the point of the project was to showcase Dylan’s music – which I thought was very imaginatively and successfully selected and arranged. (By the way, the comment about the funereal pace of ‘I Want You’ suggests that Martin has not heard the Budokan version, which was how Dylan was singing the song on his 1978 tour.)

    • Ah, but I wasn’t a fan of the Budokan version either, Frank (although Bruce Springsteen did do a gorgeous slow version). I had a problem with the more, shall we say, operatic singing of it in GFTNC, which seemed to kill the feel of the words.

    • ps I’m generally a fan of changed tempo and words, as a lot of Dylan songs don’t have a definitive version…

  8. I agree with both your comments, Martin. ‘Cutting Edge’, of course, is wonderful proof of Dylan’s reluctance to believe in definitive versions (as are his concerts).

  9. I enjoyed the play, so did my wife – both of us fans of Dylan and of good theatre for many decades. Setting it in the 30’s was a smart fit and helped in offering a new view of the same words (…we just saw it from a different point, of view). Most of the song re-interpretations were at least good and some were excellent. As others have said, Dylan watchers will have heard him sing many wildly different versions of his own songs over the last fifty years – it is wrong to regard the recorded versions as “definitive” – Dylan certainly doesn’t. For those interested to hear a beautiful and even even slower version of “I Want You” it is the first of a number of outtakes from his MTV Unplugged show in 1993: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=EAUG8WU4lyg

  10. As someone who has seen Bob too many times to count I absolutely loved the show and would urge anyone able to get to London to go and see it with an open mind. I have already played the CD more times than all of his recent “American Songbook” albums put together.

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