Woody Sez: The Words, Music and Spirit of Woody Guthrie

Our critics rating: 
Tuesday, 18 January, 2011
Review by: 
Peter Brown

This is a show about the life and music of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (1912- 1967) - better known as Woody Guthrie - who is generally regarded as one of the leading exponents of American folk music. Now that term covers a range of musical genres and styles, but suffice it to say that acoustic guitars and fiddles are the main instruments on display here, which may give non-aficionados some flavour of what's on offer.

A team of 4 extremely talented musicians form the cast for the show. Specifically, the line-up is David M Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen J Russell and Andy Teirstein. All play a variety of instruments including spoons, guitar, violin, double bass, whistle and a few others whose names escape me. It's hugely impressive stuff as is the way in which the actor-musicians move fluidly and effortlessly between instruments and numbers, whilst taking on character roles to augment the narrative. And the cast's enthusiasm and passion for Guthrie's music is obvious right from the start.

The story of Guthrie's life is told in small snippets by David Lutken whose warm, unpretentious and affable style reminds you of talking with a (friendly) neighbour over the garden wall. Set against a background of simple photos such as the farmland in the dust-bowl of the 1930s, Mr Lutken takes on the persona of Guthrie as he presents the singer-songwriter's biography. The format works well because the narrative never gets bogged-down in long-winded verbal descriptions or detours – the dialogue having been pruned to a minimum and presented in small, highly digestible and focused chunks that are quickly followed by songs. And all Guthrie's best-known songs are among the thirty or so the cast manage to squeeze in to the economical running time of around 2 hours.'This Train Is Bound For Glory', 'This Land Is Your Land', and 'Riding In My car' to name just a few.

I am not exactly a fan of folk or country music, but the infectious rhythm and the simple narrative lyrics – almost sound bites in many ways – draw you in, and there were times when I found my feet tapping irresistibly, almost with a will of their own. But what we learn about Guthrie is just as compelling. As a youngster, his family faced hardship when their house burnt down, and Guthrie experienced and witnessed life in the Great Depression while tramping the roads earning a meagre living playing in salons and hopping freight cars to get around. No wonder, then, that his songs speak of people 'scraping by' and those who 'have got no voice'.

For Guthrie fans, this really is an unmissable musical treat. The singing and music are of the highest quality, and the sensitive and sensible direction by co-writer Nick Corley provides a first-class vehicle not only for a great night out, but in providing a real insight into the life, experiences and motivation that drove Woody Guthrie to produce so many fine songs in this genre.

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