This really shouldn’t work as well as it does. Girl from the North Country takes songs from throughout Bob Dylan’s career – from the 1960s title track through to 2012 album Tempest – and uses them to tell a story, not of the man and his music, but of a group of drifters and other lonely souls in Depression-era America.
Conor McPherson’s play, set in Dylan’s birthplace of Duluth, Minnesota, is strong on mood but pretty skimpy in places. The characters that populate Nick Laine’s boarding house fade in and out of focus. Plot threads are introduced only to be forgotten, and Shirley Henderson, as Nick’s wife, Elizabeth, has the kind of dementia that conveniently allows for lucidity and insight at key dramatic moments.
And yet none of this really matters. The atmospheric staging, the narrative power of the music and the skill of the performances combine to create something magical. A hit at the Old Vic last year, the show is a good fit for the Noel Coward Theatre. It is at once soaring and intimate. Most of the cast have travelled with it, with Finbar Lynch joining as the vulpine bible salesman Reverend Marlowe, David Ganly stepping in for Stanley Townsend and Adam James taking over as narrator from Ron Cook.
Simon Hale’s arrangements of the songs give the show an emotional heft and the quality and richness of the voices remains glorious.
Henderson delivers a smoking version of Like a Rolling Stone. Arinze Kene, as boxer Joe, sings with a honeyed tongue, and Jack Shalloo blows the roof off the place with his rendition of Duquesne Whistle. There’s not a dud among them but the real revelation is Sheila Atim, stunning as Nick and Elizabeth’s adopted daughter Marianne. Hers is a theatre-filling, skin-tingling, heart-penetrating performance.