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This play with music places songs by Bob Dylan into a story set in his home town in 1934, seven years before he was born. The title comes from Dylan’s version of Scarborough Fair, but here the north country is Duluth, Minnesota and 1934 was in the middle of the Great Depression. It’s bleak and beautiful.

Nick runs a boarding house, up to his eyeballs in debt. His wife Elizabeth has dementia, his son Gene is an unemployed wannabe writer with a drink problem and his adopted daughter Marianne (a black baby abandoned at the boarding house) is pregnant. All of his guests are down on their luck. Widow Mrs Neilson is waiting for her inheritance, having an affair with Nick while she waits. Mr & Mrs Burke are waiting for money they’re owed; they have an adult son Elias with severe learning difficulties. Bible seller Rev Marlowe and boxer Joe Scott turn up late one night. They might not be who they say they are. Joe takes a shine to Marianne, though Nick has other plans for her. Then there’s the doctor, who acts as our narrator.

It’s great storytelling, as we’ve come to expect from Conor McPherson, and somehow the songs, written 30 to 60 years later, fit the time, place and characters like a glove, though they aren’t sung in character or even by one character; they’re not there to propel the narrative, more for atmosphere. McPherson directs too, and for a playwright he makes a mighty fine director, unusual in my experience! The arrangements and orchestrations by Simon Hale have a period feel and they are are beautiful, breathing new life into the songs. The band wrap around the outstanding vocals, always accompanying, never drowning. The staging, and Rae Smith’s design, reminded me of the musical Once – simple but atmospheric, particularly the photographic panels that come and go.

I’m not sure where to start with the performances; it is such a superb ensemble, benefiting I think for limited musical theatre experience and bad habits! Perhaps I should start with Karl Queensborough, an understudy playing Joe, who really was excellent. Ciaran Hinds has great presence as Nick and towers over diminutive Shirley Henderson as his wife, who is unpredictable and edgy and has the most sensational voice which I’m not sure has ever been heard on stage before. Sam Reid is great too as Gene, delivering I Want You so well a woman in the front stalls said out loud a perhaps unintended ‘wonderful’. Sheila Atim, also in fine voice, is ever so good as Marianne and Stanley Townsend, Bronagh Gallagher and Jack Shalloo give a fine trio of performances as the Burkes. Probably the most experienced musical theatre performer, the great Debbie Kurup, delivers Dylan’s songs beautifully.

Some may call it a musical, some the now derogatory term juke-box musical, for me its a play with music and its it’s own thing, something unique, and I loved it.

 

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This is one of those thought-provoking stimulating ‘state of the world’ plays that are right up my street! It’s more about morality & ethics than faith in a religious sense, with two central issues explored through the lives of Tom, Sophie and her dad – abandoning your principles for success and the Anglican church attitude to homosexuality.

In three acts each of two scenes, Alexi Kaye Campbell’s play spans 13 years but doesn’t do so chronologically. We move between Tom’s first meeting with Sophie’s dad to a later visit when he’s ill, their break-up, their reunion at a friend’s civil partnership, another reunion when they’ve parted from their respective new partners and a final scene which I won’t spoil but provides the last jigsaw piece for you to complete the picture. It is both the story of people’s lives and an examination of issues of our time. It occasionally feels contrived, most notably when you realise Sophie’s ultimatum was rather belated, but it’s very good writing and stimilating debate that I’m still thinking about more than 12 hours later.

Kyle Soller has already impressed at the Young Vic in both The Glass Menagerie and The Government Inspector, and he impresses again here as a gangly, highly strung and clumsy bundle of energy. Hayley Atwell plays Sophie as a much cooler worldly wise moralist. My only criticism is that neither really age the 13 years on stage that they do on the page. Ian McDiarmid has a tough task to pull off the father / bishop struggling with his beliefs and his health, but he does so very well. In a uniformly fine cast, Bronagh Gallagher is terrific as the Ukrainian housekeeper / ex-prostitute who provides most of the play’s many funny moments and Jude Akuwudike as both a Kenyan bishop and a gay Nigerian Brit (with some playfulness about the double-up along the way). Jamie Lloyd’s fine direction gives the play great pace, though I’m not convinced two intervals were necessary.

Though it’s a stimulating debate, it’s also a fine personal story as well as being hugely entertaining. The Royal Court continues to lead the way with contemporary drama that reflects what’s happening in the world and this one complements others like The Heretic, Tribes, Posh, Clybourne Park, Enron and Jerusalem. I loved it.

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