Featuring 22 songs by Bob Dylan, Girl From The North Country is billed as a play with music rather than a musical.

Written and directed by Irish playwright Conor McPherson (The Weir, The Seafarer), you could in fact take the songs out and the story would all be there. Rather than advancing the plot or developing characterisation as traditionally happens in a musical, the songs act as a more abstract, reflective addition to the narrative.

Girl From The North Country

Lisa McCune in Girl From The North Country. Photo © Daniel Boud

But it’s the music – performed as you’ve never heard it before – that gives the show its profound emotional impact, creating a poignant backdrop for the piece. A program note reveals that when McPherson was asked to pitch an idea to Dylan about using his music in a theatre piece, he said he was thinking of “an expansive Eugene O’Neill type play with Bob Dylan’s love songs intertwined”. Dylan liked the idea and gave the go-ahead. The resulting show has a different feel to most musicals but does an exquisite job in using Dylan’s music to beguile and move the audience.

Girl From The North Country premiered at The Old Vic in London in 2017 before moving to the West End, Toronto and Broadway.

Set in Duluth, Minnesota (where Dylan was born) in 1934 during the Great Depression, the musical play takes place in a dilapidated boarding house run by Nick Laine (Peter Kowitz), who is up to his neck in debt with the banks about to foreclose on him. His wife Elizabeth (Lisa McCune) is suffering dementia and uttering uncomfortable truths, his son Gene (James Smith) is a wannabe writer who does little but drink, while his adopted African American daughter Marianne (Zahra Newman) is pregnant but won’t name the father.

Staying at the guesthouse are a group of lost souls, yearning to get their lives back on track and struggling to pay the rent – Mrs Neilsen (Christina O’Neill), a widow, who  is waiting for the inheritance from her husband and having an affair with Nick, Mr Burke (Greg Stone) who lost his business during the crash, his wife (Helen Dallimore) and their grown-up son Elias (Blake Erickson), who has the mind of a child and the strength of a powerful man (shades of Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men).

Also appearing are the morphine-addicted Dr Walker (Terence Crawford), who acts as an occasional narrator, an elderly shoemaker Mr Perry (Peter Carroll) who Nick hopes will marry Marianne, and Gene’s former girlfriend Katherine (Elizabeth Hay) who has left him for a man with better prospects and is departing Duluth for a new job.

Then two other men arrive in the early hours of the morning: scoundrel Bible-seller Reverend Marlowe (Grant Piro) and young black boxer Joe Scott (Callum Francis), who claim to have met on the train.

Girl From The North Country

Zahra Newman and Callum Francis in Girl From The North Country. Photo © Daniel Boud

From these characters (who are supported by an ensemble of six), McPherson weaves a tale that speaks to the desperation of the times for so many ordinary folk; a time of floundering businesses, rampant poverty, misery, desperation and pervasive racism.

The script is beautifully and subtly written. Although McPherson doesn’t go into a huge amount of detail about each person, he tells us enough for the collage of their tales to create a complex emotional narrative that evokes the struggles of the day. The music deepens our connection.

Occasionally the songs have a direct reference to the plot. When Katherine comes to farewell Gene, they sing I Want You – a moment of translucent sadness. Joe Strong sings Hurricane, in which Dylan wrote about the wrongful imprisonment of black American-Canadian boxer Rubin “Hurricane” Carter, while the full cast sings You Ain’t Goin’ Nowhere at a Thanksgiving party, which is a joyous moment and yet captures the wistful yearning for a better future that remains out of reach.

The biggest production number is when Elias sings Duqesne Whistle, but mostly the songs, with their poetic, resonant lyrics, speak more abstractly to the inner feelings of the characters in quiet, aching, introspective renditions.

Simon Hale’s musical arrangements have a lovely folksy feel, with the four on-stage musicians (led by Musical Director Andrew Ross) playing instruments specially chosen because they were regularly played in the 1930s including piano, bass, guitar and fiddle. The drum kit sits at the front of the stage and is occasionally played by actors Helen Dallimore and Greg Stone, while Blake Erickson plays the harmonica. The standing microphones also refer to the period as the cast, including ensemble members, gather around them to perform different songs.

Among an excellent cast, Lisa McCune is sublime. Her acting feels utterly authentic as she needles Nick and the other characters in Elizabeth’s rather spiky, demented way, and she is singing with more radiance than ever, breaking the heart with songs such as Like a Rolling Stone and Forever Young.

Girl From The North Country

Girl From The North Country. Photo © Daniel Boud

Zahra Newman, Christina O’Neill and Callum Francis are also standouts, though the entire cast work together wonderfully well as a tight ensemble.

Rae Smith’s costumes and set, which features furniture that the actors move around as well as flats and luminous projections on the back wall, evoke the period perfectly, and the lighting by Mark Henderson adds a haunting quality.

Everything about the production, including the style of performance, speaks to the 1930s and yet the issues the show addresses really hit home now, given the loss of work and the isolation that so many people have suffered due to COVID, and the focus on racism that gave rise to the Black Lives Matter movement around the world, including in Australia.

Girl From The North Country plays out in a subtle, muted, minor key, gradually drawing you into its world and gathering emotional force as it unfolds. Before you now it, you suddenly find that you care about each and every character, and by the end I was filled with emotion. A gorgeous, poignant piece.

Girl From The North Country plays at the Theatre Royal, Sydney until 27 February; Her Majesty’s Theatre, Adelaide, 25 March – 10 April, for State Theatre Company South Australia; and at the Comedy Theatre, Melbourne, 29 April – 29 May.