Bob didn’t write any of the stories in Girl From The North Country, but they are implicit in his songs. And that is what Connor McPherson has shown us as his collection of rolling stones with no direction home convene in a boarding house in depression era Duluth, Minnesota, Bob’s birthplace.
The bankrupt boarding house owner and his dementia-ridden wife, their alcoholic would-be writer son and adopted daughter are joined in the autumn of 1934 by a succession of characters: a bible-selling preacher, an unjustly imprisoned boxing champion, a merry(-ish) widow, a businessman and his wife fallen on hard times and their adult but child-like son, a lonely retired cobbler and the town doctor, who self-medicates his angst with morphine and provides a Greek chorus of commentary and back story.
Of course, these are are archetypes, even stereotypes, and they struggle to articulate their issues. But that’s okay, because to do this they have Bob’s songs, which illuminate and explicate the characters.
Which is not to say that the songs drive the plot; in fact, they occasionally contradict it and frequently move it in a different direction or no direction at all. As McPherson says, the play is “a conversation between the songs and the story”. And it is probably significant that the two songs we hear reprised are Like A Rolling Stone and Jokerman, each version being totally different from the other – in character, style and arrangement, alerting us to the similarities and differences of each individual story and the complexities (or lack of them) of the plot.
As a Dylan snob of more than 50 years, even the five star reviews in the mainstream press had not prompted me to suspend my innate scepticism of this hybrid genre, and I took my seat with a degree of apprehension. I wanted the show to be respectful and worthy of Bob (who had waived any artistic control) and I had read that Jeff Rosen, Bob’s representative here on earth, had been moved to tears in the second half.
I have to say that this was not my experience, but I was engaged throughout and impressed by the production, the cast and, especially, by the musicians - if not completely by the concept. Certainly, the show deserves its transfer to the West End and I would recommend anyone who didn’t make it to The Old Vic to book for the Noel Coward.
My last word: The show ends with an instrumental My Back Pages, leaving us, as we leave, to sing in our heads the seminal lines:
Ah but I was so much older then;
I’m younger than that now.
And therein lies a clue to the essence of the show. It is about "ancient memories".
Today from the everysmith vaults: I've been listening to Bill Nighy's superb readings of extracts from The Rub of Time by Martin Amis on Radio 4 and also, of course, the cast recording of Girl from the North Country which stands up remarkably well. You didn't have to be there.