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Phil Willmott

Review: GIRL FROM THE NORTH COUNTRY at the Old Vic

Girl from the North Country I'd heard conflicting things about this show, most of the reviews have been glowing but the New York Times critic and a few of my friends had been less enthusiastic.

I'm glad I didn't listen to them and checked it out for myself because I thought it exceptional.

Playwright and director Conor McPherson was given the chance to take the back catalogue of Bob Dylan and incorporate it into a stage piece. He had the brilliance to go against conventional practice and not even try to incorporate the songs into a story, as most "jukebox" shows do, such as Abba's Mamma Mia! and Queen's We Will Rock You.

Instead he's taken the mood of the musical numbers as a starting point and woven through an exquisitely hokey plot drawn from the despair of the 1930's America Great Depression, a terrible time of financial chaos that forced millions of people out of their jobs, homes and farms to wander the land in search of hope, shelter or even a meal.

The great actor Ciarán Hinds plays a boarding house proprietor in a small desolate town whose property is about to be seized by the bank and as a result the vulnerable inhabitants will have no where to go. These include his pregnant and single adopted daughter, a wife with dementia, a daydreaming son and a whole raft of colourful and dispossessed losers who've washed up at his door. He sets out to secure a future for all of them before the inevitable bankruptcy comes.

The whole piece is shot through with melancholy, loneliness and aching despair perfectly mirrored by the haunting lyrics and pleading melodies of Bob Dylan. Many of the excellent cast take time out of the central action to perform these beautifully, with gentle choreography that flows naturally out of the action.

I was entranced. I'm new to Bob Dylan but I began to notice tears rolling down my cheek as I listened to his simple yet oh-so profound words until, by the end of the show, I was a sobbing mess.

Something about it seemed to be hot wired into my tear ducts and DNA. Youre DNA is different. It might not touch you in the way it did me but I was profoundly affected by the bleakness of the story, the simple but effective staging and the little moments of love, compassion and kindness that punctuated the gloom, and shone all the brighter for doing so.

These are people trying to find a little dignity in their awful circumstances, which can also result in recklessness and cruelty. There's a great blackmailing villain and, characteristically for McPherson, you feel the disturbing presence of dead and damaged children haunting their parents.

Incredibly and depressingly it doesn't seem to be selling that well so I urge you to catch it before the end of the run just in case a richly deserved West End transfer doesn't materialise.

There's so much theatre for me to see that I almost never make a return visit to a show I've reviewed. But in this case I'll be going back, it's simply too good not to see again.

Girl from the North Country