Touring – reviewed at the Marlowe Theatre, Canterbury
This humbly immense, uniquely created show threw me for a loop five summers ago. It’s back on tour, via Oliviers and Broadway awards, with its miraculous marriage of poetic sensibility and hardscrabble humanity. It would be hard to find a better healing for difficult times.
A recap: Conor McPherson (writer and once more director) has woven into a play-with-songs six decades of Bob Dylan songs, brilliantly taken out of the 1960s context and placed in a boarding-house in Duluth, Minnesota in hungry, desperate 1934 where the landlord faces ruin, his wife is struck by early dementia, violent irrationality alternating with stark truths and a drifting population: on the run from poverty and failure and bad pasts, hoping and deluding, impotent, angry, despairing, suddenly brotherly, decent.
I stand by my sense of it in 2017/18 as “moody and heartfelt as an old movie, a tale harsh as Miller or Tennessee Williams, storytelling resonant and drawing deep”. The melodic, poetic yearning of the songs, divorced from Dylan’s too-familiar voice, break into the heart. The new production is faithful to the old: sparse and unpretending, the cast telling the story in songs, with microphones and onstage busking instruments, living it before us, moving, dancing, vivid.
And in a context of real disillusion, poverty and gritty life, individual agonies and hopes, Dylan’s lyrics are extraordinary: “Let’s disconnect these cables, overturn these tables, this place don’t make sense any more…” “True love tends to forget…” The once-self-indulgent “Is your love in vain…” is given to the blighted couple with the unmanageable, dangerous lost son and rises into truthfulness. We expect “Like a rolling stone” to work in this context, but wilder, freer comes the apocalyptic vision of ‘Jokerman’, and for ‘Idiot Wind’ suddenly a tableau of intense beauty, most cast grouped round the piano, Marianne alone with her fears .
And this new cast? All the singing is superb, which matters most, and again Simon Hale’s arrangements throw new colour and depth into familiar and forgotten words alike. It will grow a stronger sense of ensemble as the tour goes on: just two things I would urge. One is a firmer, slower, more explicit emphasis on storytelling in conversations: my companion, new to the play though loving it, almost missed understanding an important event at the end of the first half. The narration early and late by the doctor needs to find again the gentler melancholy of the original production: too harsh, too angry in tone. But it’s still wonderful. Justina Kehinde is a stunning Marianne, Rebecca Thornhill’s voice is a thing of glory, and Colin Connor, fierier and angrier than I remember the character being, is an impressive Nick.
And “Forever Young” hit me again, sent me out shivering. Probably will again, since I might follow it elsewhere..
at Marlowe, Canterbury till Saturday; then touring to 18 March (NB, Southampton cancelled)
rating four will grow back to five as tour goes on.