elizabeth and nick

Elizabeth and husband Nick

The Alexandra Theatre, Birmingham


You just can’t classify this merger between Bob Dylan’s music and the immeasurable talent of Irish playwright Conor McPherson. It is a bleak snapshot of lives in hopeless despair in the USA’s Great Depression, hauntingly beautiful, visually stunning and musically simply outstanding.

It is reminiscent of the writing of that other great chronicler of the Great Depression, John Steinbeck as well as the separate yet linked lives of inhabitants of small town America found in Thornton Wilder’s Pulitzer winning Our Town, with here the local Doctor, rather than the Stage Manager, acting as the one man Greek chorus to tell the audience of past, of hopes and of what was unfolding.

Awarding Dylan the Nobel Prize for Literature might have been controversial but what was never in doubt was his undoubted skill as a poet, as a teller of tales, of emotions and of loss and love in his songs but even he must have been amazed at the interpretation and new meaning in his words and music provided by orchestrator and arranger Simon Hale.

This was a raid on Dylan’s vast back catalogue, but this is no jukebox musical, grab a load of songs and fill in the gaps between with a back of an envelope story, this is a real musical, the songs worked lovingly into the narrative, not the other way round.

Some interpretations and some less well known songs only Dylan fans would recognise, others were so far from the originals they were almost new songs with new emotions, new meaning.

The story is set in Nick’s run-down boarding house in run down Deluth, a port city on Lake Superior in Minnesota in 1934. Jobs and money are in short supply and the bank is knocking at Nick’s door with threats of foreclosure. Nick, played by Colin Connor, is a difficult man. He is going bust, does not get on with his son Gene, played by Gregor Milne, and he has a wife, Elizabeth, who told him she no longer loved him, which could have been a parting of the ways except she developed mental illness and Nick, gruff Nick, stayed and looked after her with a deep love hidden beneath his rough outer shell.

Frances McNamee, playing Elizabeth, is no stranger to the Alex, she was superb as Meg in Sting’s brilliant The Last Ship back in 2018 and in an outstanding cast of 19 here, she shines like a beacon.

Mr Perry and Marianne

Elizabeth is unattractive in every way, almost scary at times, unstable mentally and at times physically as well, she is never normal, won’t eat, steals drinks, keeps her life in a tiny box that never leaves her grasp and is odd and erratic from opening line to closing bow. It is a simply magnificent performance and what a voice! Her Like a Rolling Stone becomes an anthem of anguish.

Son Gene is an unemployed aspiring writer, that is when he is not on a drunken bender hovering over a self-destruct button.

His life is held together by little more than hope it can’t get worse, but sadly it can when his girlfriend Kate, played by Eve Norris, announces she is leaving for Boston and is marrying a guy with something Gene can’t offer, he has a job and possibilities.

That is the cue for a defeated Gene to sing a low key and painfully sad I want You which turns into a tale of lost love in a duet with Kate.

In the boarding house is Nick and Elizabeth’s  adopted daughter Marianne, played by Justina Kehinde, adopted when she was abandoned in a holdall in the boarding house as a new born. Marianne is black which adds another layer to this story, race.

Her Tight Connection To My Heart (Has Anybody Seen My Love) is another highlight and another fine voice. 

Nick is trying to marry her off to the elderly shoe shop owner Mr Perry, played by Teddy Kempner. In cold hard terms selling his daughter in return for “investment” to keep the boarding house afloat . . . for a while. Mr Perry, a widower, you suspect, wants company more than anything else, with a late speech raging against time when he declares nobody decides to get old.

Living in the boarding house is Mrs Neilsen, Maria Omakinwa, who you suspect is a little more than Nick’s guest. She is waiting for probate on her husband’s will when she and Nick plan to buy a proper hotel with her inheritance – the future being all anyone in a Godforsaken part of a Godforsaken town in Godforsaken times can hope for.

The other guests are the Burke family with James Staddon as Mr Burke, Rebecca Thornhill as his rather flighty wife, and a mean drummer and singer when needed, and their son Elias, a professional debut for Ross Carswell, although you would only know that from reading the programme. The boy done good. Elias is . . . should we say . . . intellectually challenged. Think Lenny in Of Mice and Men.

The Burkes were wealthy, Mr Burke had a successful business, they had a fine house, living was easy, but the Great Depression didn’t take prisoners. He lost his business and his home and the family are struggling to come to terms with being reduced to living in a two bit boarding house with no mod cons.


Mrs Burke and Doc Walker

Enter two travellers seeking shelter in a storm, the self-appointed and self-ordained, man of what was probably his own self-appointed God, the Reverend Marlowe. The good reverend was a carpet bagging bible salesman whose church was confined to a suitcase where you could repent your sins for $2 a copy. With him was former boxer Joe Scott, played by Joshua C Jackson. Joe might have been a contender, but that was three years ago and since then, well perhaps best not to spoil that little surprise.

They are about to change everything without even trying. They are like a pebble dropped innocently in a pond, the waves ripple out and for people merely clinging on to life the slightest swell is a danger.

The Rev and Joe give us a jazzy Slow Train which adds to the general despair around the place.

And then there is Chris McHallem as Dr Walker. He is the family doctor who has looked after Elizabeth and the family for years. A widower he found morphine helped him cope, until it didn’t. He colours in the characters, tells us their background, and their futures, after all this happened almost 90 years ago, and he adds a little bit of Deluth history. Things like in 1920 when three totally innocent black circus workers were dragged from jail and lynched merely on a rumour a white woman had been raped, something never proven; 10,000 people watched but no one was ever prosecuted.

The stories and people come together, cross and drift apart, move on, some characters never make it, and it all transcends mere words and music, paying equal homage to both Dylan’s poetry and McPherson’s magical story telling.

The production is also a masterclass in staging with a deceptively simple set from Rae Smith with an excellent four piece band under Andrew Corcoran in the rear stage right corner with a drum kit stage front left. Scenery scrims drop from the flies with backing singers suddenly appearing behind walls, a stage wide screen at the rear opens and closes with sliding walls, tables and chairs are carried on and off by a hard working ensemble of backing singers and townsfolk and intelligent lighting from Mark Henderson adds to and highlights songs and scenes.

The music arrangements and harmonies are worth a bow on their own, a stunning Forever Young to end, and McPherson’s direction just lets the story be told. If there was a fault then at times a little of the dialogue was lost but first night in a new theatre creates its own problems for sound engineers so I can forgive that. Simon Baker’s sound had good balance between band and singers and an old valve radio stage front right was loud enough to be heard when it was on but not enough to distract.

It is far from an uplifting production, feelgood passed it by, but it is a moving, stunning, and as we said at the start, a beautiful piece of memorable, thoughtful theatre that will stay with you for a long, long time. To 11-02-24.

Roger Clarke


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