If John Steinbeck had been asked to write a musical, it may have looked something like this. Written and directed by Irish playwright Conor McPherson, Girl From The North Country is both more and less than it what appears to be from the outset: a middle-class jukebox musical. Some of the people who would poo-poo the very thought of seeing Bat Out Of Hell — despite it being in an opera house — will no doubt be swaying along to this bleak drama at the Old Vic. The play references twenty of Bob Dylan's songs as well as his time and place of birth; 1930s' Duluth, Minnesota.
McPherson presents us with a plethora of Depression Era characters but few are given any characterisation deeper than a One Direction hit; together, though, they paint a broad picture of desperate folk in desperate times struggling against poverty, illness, unemployment, racism and injustice. The existential misery is broken up by an impressive cast who take turns to sing stirring numbers like Forever Young, Like A Rolling Stone and Hurricane, with Shirley Henderson especially moving on the first two. Opposite her as her struggling husband and guesthouse owner, Ciaran Hinds paints a suitably dour figure but is given little room to maneuver beyond this. Too many songs and too little depth for a serious drama but far weightier than the average jukebox musical, Girl From The North Country is difficult to categorise but a brilliantly beguiling production in its own right.
Girl From The North Country, Old Vic, The Cut, Lambeth, SE1 8NB. £12-67.50. Until 7 October.