Theatre Review: "Woody Sez" at the Arts Theatre, London
When you enter a theatre to find the cast of the show sitting on the edge of the stage working their way through a selection of instrumental pieces on guitar, fiddle and banjo, you feel immediately welcomed into a family. The intimate atmosphere of London's Arts Theatre and the simplicity of unamplified music only adds to that feeling. "Woody Sez", playing in London for the first time, is an accessible, enjoyable, not-too-challenging presentation of the work of possibly the most important folk singer of the last century.
Woody Guthrie’s songs are staples of every campfire and protest rally, but his own story is far less well-known. Born into an Oklahoma family blighted by Huntington’s disease – to which he, too, eventually succumbed – his life was filled with a series of tragedies and losses. Rejected by the mainstream for his political statements, he fought relentlessly for social justice, a sticker on his guitar reading “This machine kills fascists”.
Woody Sez is very much the creation of David Lutken, who wrote the show, is the musical director and plays the main character – a job made easier by his not inconsiderable physical resemblance to Guthrie. His explanation at the beginning of the show of how he, as a musician and actor from the southern US, was fascinated and influenced by Guthrie’s music, brings the audience very close to him. He works his way through Guthrie’s life story, from his birth and childhood, through his departure from Oklahoma, his marriages and his lingering death, with the rest of the cast taking on all the other characters that surrounded Guthrie.
All four members of the cast – Lutken, Darcie Deaville, Helen Russell and Andy Teirstein – are accomplished multi-instrumentalists, and are outnumbered several times by their extensive collection of instruments. As well as multiple guitars – including a 150-year-old Martin parlour guitar – fiddles and harmonicas, the selection includes an autoharp, a dulcimer, a penny whistle, a Jew’s harp and a pair of soup spoons bought from a thrift shop.
The show works its way through 30-odd Guthrie songs, and thus doesn’t complete any of them, which is a little frustrating at times, but it does end with a singalong.
Maybe a story as sad as Guthrie’s needs to be told in a gentle way, and it’s hard to represent Dust Bowl life with a small cast and a limited set, but Woody Sez does leave you with both a warm feeling and a slight sense that maybe warm is not what one ought to be feeling amid such a story of tragedy and injustice. Nevertheless, it’s a very enjoyable night out, and a welcome introduction to a very important part of American history.
"Woody Sez" runs until April 2. http://www.artstheatrewestend.com/