Girl from the country north

This Great Depression drama may be scored with classic Dylan songs but it is too understated to strike a chord

First things first: Girl From the North Country is not a musical. It’s a play with songs. We expect the numbers in a musical to be more or less integrated with the action; here, though, actors move downstage behind old-fashioned stand microphones and deliver the songs straight out to the audience, backed in unpluggedian style by piano, guitar, stand-up bass, violin and anyone at hand to wield the drum-brushes. The numbers themselves work as illustrations, commentary, even as metaphor.

It’s all very understated. But that’s what you expect from Conor McPherson, arguably Ireland’s finest living playwright. He’s never been one for the grand gesture: he started out writing monologues and his best-known play, the Weir, is basically just a handful of people sitting talking in a pub. This is perhaps his most complex piece yet, with over a dozen characters in an ensemble style, as well as those songs. Oh, did I not mention? The songs are by a guy called Dylan, got a prize a while back from some Scandies. McPherson has picked nearly 20 songs spanning almost 50 years of Nobel laureate Bob dylan’s career. In short, you don’t get to write this stuff off as fluff or filler.

The story takes place in a down-at-heel rooming house in Duluth, Minnesota in autumn 1934 (not quite seven years before Robert Sllen Zimmerman was born in the same city). Everyone – landlords, staff, guests, even anyone who just drops in – is facing savage difficulties, most of them to do with the economic hardships of the great depression, some with plain old-fashioned racism. Few if any of their stories end well.

And I’m sorry, but few if any go anywhere anyway. I’m a big fan of understated writing, and therefore of McPherson, but here he’s got so many people to be understated with that none of them ever get fleshed out all that much. And when, like McPherson (who also directs), you have a pool of acting talent to draw on that includes old associates such as Ciarán hinds, Jim Norton, Ron Cook, Bronagh Gallagher and Stanley Townsend, that pretty much amounts to a waste.

The real sensation here is Shirley Henderson. Anyone who knows her only as moaning Myrtle in the Harry Potter films will be shocked by the bleak intensity of her performance as Elizabeth, the landlord’s (Hinds) wife with early-onset dementia; even those of us who know the breadth of her work were astounded by her fierce rendition of like a rolling stone. But overall, McPherson’s resolve not to give in to the allure of the Dylan Connection and the siren call of sensation has resulted in an evening that, although flawless, is... well, not sensational.

Until 7 October at The Old Vic, London SE1, 0844-871 7628,