Sunday, 3 February 2013

Woody Sez - review

Written by: Sophie Talbot (@sophietalbot_91)

Ashcroft Theatre (Fairfield Halls), Croydon

There’s a surprising lack of spectacle for a show which comprises over thirty songs. Instead, David M Lutken and Nick Corley dazzle with heart and spirit in their understated tribute to the life and music of folk-singer, Woody Guthrie.

Guthrie, a prominent figure in American music (influencing artists such as Bruce Springsteen), departed his native Oklahoma due to ecological and agricultural collapse as a result of the 30’s Dust Bowl, travelling to California during the Great Depression. Coined the ‘Dust Bowl Troubadour’, Guthrie’s songs captured the austere conditions of the people struck by financial collapse and protested the injustice served by the rich to the poor; he was a man of the people. The company encapsulate the quintessence of Guthrie right from the off as they sit casually on the end of the stage, playing instruments and conversing light-heartedly with the audience whilst the house lights are up. Such openness suggests that this is our tribute to Guthrie as much as it is theirs, affectingly reflecting the principles of his music.

The format of the performance resembles an unceremonious recital; songs are interspersed with biographical interludes frankly enacted by Lutken, as Woody, and the company, who multi-role various characters from Guthrie’s life. An exceptional instance is Helen J Russell’s portrayal of Guthrie’s mother who tragically died of Huntington’s disease. The simplicity of Russell’s poignantly sombre expression, combined with the dulcet musical accompaniment, amply captures the magnitude of the heartbreak. The copious instruments which fill the otherwise scarce stage tell us that the performance intentionally focuses on the music. The brief accounts of Guthrie’s life provide historical context to his songs, depicting the severe hardship which inspired him to write. Furthermore, there is a neatly devised interaction between past and present: Lutken alternates between talking about Guthrie and addressing the audience as an extremely likeable and passionate Woody, in the first person. Bringing the character and his journey to life through direct address invites us to intuitively recognise the resonance that his music has with today’s society. The company’s candidly satirical rendition of ‘Jolly Banker’, mocking the deceptive intentions of corporate figures, is a stand-out example.

The company – Lutken, Russell, Ruth Clarke-Irons, and William Wolfe Hogan – are tremendously, musically gifted. Seamlessly courting an array of instruments, even spoons, they tenderly evoke both the uplifting and bleak essences of Guthrie’s music. The subtle staging, mainly involving close knit formations, elicits the sense of togetherness and solidarity which is the lifeblood of Guthrie’s songs. This spirit whole-heartedly infects the audience who unite in a sprightly sing-along without an ounce of hesitation; the sense of uplifting concord that his music inspired is clear in an instant. Woody Sez illustrates the stimulation and unity that music is capable of achieving and it’s a breath of fresh air in stark contrast to the mechanical chart hits churned out at present. The production reminds us of a way to actively unite and respond to our own financially and politically challenging times, reminiscent of Woody’s background. Lutken aptly recites the words of Woody: “There’s a difference between wanting something to stop and wanting to stop it”.

The evening is an easy-going, skillful, account of the life and music of Woody Guthrie which fittingly makes for a moving tribute to the abundantly charming man in question. Woody Sez is a delightful performance oozing with inspiration. It’s ‘made for you and me’.

This production has now closed. 
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