Knocking on heaven’s door. Girl from the North Country is one of the most transporting shows I have seen in years. I will declare a couple of interests. Bob Dylan’s songs – the spine of Conor McPherson’s play – have been my croaky companions since I was 13. Twenty years ago, McPherson’s The Weir was one of the first new plays I was able to applaud as a critic. This combining of talents was always a pull. Still, it could have gone wrong.
In fact, McPherson, who also directs, has created something subtle, though apparently simple: the stage equivalent of a radio ballad. Ron Cook, in Stetson and boots, tops and tails the narrative as in one of those old talkie records – the most hokey example is Wink Martindale’s Deck of Cards. He looks back – it turns out, in ghostly McPherson fashion, from the grave – on 1934. On the Depression and a boarding house in Dylan’s birthplace, Duluth, Minnesota. He finds in true ballad style the ersatz and the essential, the religious and the mundane: oddballs, a corrupt pastor, doomed loves, romantic escapes, sudden death, gaudy high spirits, the scuzzy and the lovely.
It’s obvious that this will be exceptional – quick and surprising – from the opening moment. A woman with peroxide hair, dark roots, a clingy red dress and a fur stole tittups on to the stage – and sits down at the drums. But you could not predict the gleaming, expansive talent of actors who prove able not only to shimmy but memorably to sing. Look at Shirley Henderson playing a woman with dementia, a frantic skewiff imp who opens her legs to anyone and, magically, her lungs to the audience. Look at Sheila Atim – last seen as a spellbinding Ferdinand in the Donmar’s Tempest – as a mesmeric Madonna. Look at Ciarán Hinds, like a dolmen, wrapped in melancholy. Look at anyone: there are no weak links.
This may be dust-bowl era, but the numbers are not all Woody Guthrie-inflected: they go up to a rousing Duquesne Whistle of 2012. The only harmonica is played by an adolescent character with the mental age of four. In Simon Hale’s lovely arrangements, each number is refloated, sometimes on a raft of female voices, sometimes with a backing trio of tambourines.
The plot whirls the words round and makes them land with a different meaning. Went to See the Gypsy is sung by a woman dressed in flamenco frills and looking for love: it is as if she is consulting her own psyche about her future. I Want You is split between male and female voices – and hauntingly spliced with a keening render of Like a Rolling Stone.
I came away feeling that Dylan has been writing not a series of songs but an unfolding chronicle. Forever Young is, with a nice irony, withheld until the end. When all the young are blowing in the wind.
It is time for the Olivia awards. Of course there is more to Lucy Kirkwood’s new play, Mosquitoes, than Olivias Colman and Williams. There is the Large Hadron Collider. There is a mother (affecting, stern Amanda Boxer) losing the wits for which she never got her full meed of praise. There is a running joke about Toblerone. There are sharp scenes of bullying by text. And there is 23-year-old Joseph Quinn. Quivering with anxiety and intelligence, he exactly captures the chrysalis condition of adolescence. Lying on the floor in his hoodie, stunned with anguish, he even looks like a caterpillar.
Still, it is the two women who set plot and stage alight. Two sisters from a family that is intellectual and scientific, brought up to regard themselves as totally different. Williams plays a brainbox achiever – now working in Geneva; Colman is her sibling, regarded as slow, selling insurance in (cheap laugh) Luton, looking after (“caring for”, as we now say) their mother.
Kirkwood makes the differences between the two plausible but not predictable. Jenny (Colman), intuitive but not always kind, is by turns wily, racist, sodden with sadness, lit up. Alice (Williams) may be rational but she is not chilly. She moves like quicksilver, mentally and emotionally; in grief she folds into herself like a penknife. Together they are dynamite. Scrapping within minutes of coming together; bludgeoning anyone who tries to come between them. The lights go down on them sitting back to back, reaching awkwardly for each other’s hands.
This is a beautiful touch in Rufus Norris’s restless production of a restless play. Mosquitoes is less schematic than Kirkwood’s much garlanded Chimerica, and in my view superior. There are a few too many whirling lights and ironies; I’m not sure we need a mad-eyed scientist wildly expanding our sense of what’s going on. But this is never tedious. It finely bring things together in a true central explanation: love is our way through chaos. And it provides the best portrait since Elena Ferrante of women together.
A bare, shiny gold wall. Ice cubes like diamonds piled at the front. Sienna Miller slipping out of a scaly dress like a snake shedding its skin. Forget the Mississippi plantation – and forget, for some of the time, the Mississippi accents. This production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is directed by Benedict Andrews, who three years ago opened up and remade A Streetcar Named Desire. It is produced by the Young Vic, which under the inspiring leadership of David Lan, who has just announced his resignation, has specialised in spinning classic plays to revelatory effect.
This should be the ultimately searing thing: sexual sizzle and a mighty long reach. Tennessee Williams makes his dramatic successors look like ingenues as he shows the fracture of a relationship and the despair of a nation. He does it by intense heat. But for most of the time the temperature here would not boil an egg.
There are fierce touches. The terrifying grandchildren (dubbed “the no-necks” by Cat) charge in with toy guns – like a threat of an America to come. A birthday cake is destroyed with besmattering creativity. But the core relationships are tepid. As Brick, Jack O’Connell, whose character should make you ache because he is so potentially potent but utterly absent, seems for most of the time to have gone on holiday along with his wavering accent. His central scene with Colm Meaney, strong but not indelible as his father – in which he dodges the question of a homosexual relationship – is not so much intricately argued over as laborious.
And Sienna Miller? As Maggie she does everything that is required and nothing that is wrong – except that she looks like a box of tricks without the inverted commas. She arches her back and slides around like a cat; she dives in and out of assurance. She is accurate but not embodied: a guidebook to the character.
Star ratings (out of 5)
Girl from the North Country ★★★★★
Cat on a Hot Tin Roof ★★★
• Girl From the North Country is at the Old Vic, London, until 7 Oct; Mosquitoes is at the Dorfman until 28 Sept; and Cat on a Hot Tin Roof is at the Apollo until 7 Oct
- This article was amended on 30 July. Colm Meaney plays Brick’s father, not his father-in-law as originally stated. This has now been corrected.