Woody Sez, Waterside Theatre, Aylesbury ★★★★

The latest in a long line of musicals that tell a story of a performer through their music, Woody Sez celebrates the life of American folk legend Woody Guthrie.

Growing up in the dust bowls of Oklahoma, Guthrie experienced first hand the realities of life during America’s Great Depression, migrating with families who would move from state to state desperately looking for work. The songs he would perform, whether pre-existing or his own original works, would become a mix of nostalgia for the migrants’ homelands, dreams of a better life, and chronicles of the hardships they were going through. His continued first-hand observations of the desperate poverty led Guthrie to adopt a more campaigning stance and to construct songs that were more political in nature.

David M Lutken, who created Woody Sez and who plays Woody, has crafted an exploration of Guthrie’s life that is a four-piece concert of folk music with a narrative structure exposing a biography that is suffused throughout with tragedy, hardship and optimism. Lutken’s Guthrie – who acts as his own fourth-wall-busting narrator – captures the complexities of a man who, at an early age, had to face up to his mother’s declining mental health before hitting the road and chronicling life in the Depression.

With Lutken, three performers (Ruth Clarke-Irons, Eleanor Brunsdon and William Wolfe Hogan) take on a variety of roles in short scenes of interaction with Guthrie. Most moving is Brunsdon’s depiction of Guthrie’s mother, whose battle with Huntington’s disease caused her to set fire to their homes, even to her husband, before committal to an asylum. But each of these scenes serves mainly to provide context to Guthrie’s songs, which are the real stars of the evening.

The foursome plays a variety of instruments – from various guitars and fiddles to harmonicas and dulcimers – evoking a real sense of homespun folk music, from foot-stomping bluegrass to more contemplative solo guitar.

As Woody’s work gets more political, and as he finds his voice in the Hooverville communities in which America’s homeless poor found themselves, the show manages to retain the streak of humour that Guthrie injected into his writing. Depictions of the fat cats collecting monies from people who have none left to give, such as in Jolly Banker, take a deceptively light look at Depression-era America in ways that feel timeless and relevant today.

Classics such as This Land is Your Land and The Ballad of Tom Joad, the latter of which is woven throughout the evening, help explain why Guthrie’s work went on to inspire a generation of performers from Bob Dylan to Billy Bragg. But while Lutken’s show has the potential to make more people aware of the genius of Guthrie’s work, at the same time it feels like it appeals more to those already in the know. In a show which also chronicles how Guthrie would constantly butt heads with the more commercial aspects in control of music and radio in ways that would only strengthen his popularity, it is a shame that the only audiences that seem to be drawn to this company’s short UK tour are those who already know of Guthrie’s work.

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