Friday, April 29, 2011

Woody Sez

Arts Theater London

Not a concert, as such, but a play about the life of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie. Started life in America, but now touring Englandland.

The programme notes described the creation of the show as being a little like a jazz improvisation, with David Lutken, the creator, who also takes the role of Woody Guthrie, acting as a kind of conductor. That's certainly what the evening felt like. The four-person cast clearly know Woody's songbook intimately, and there was a sense of the evening being a tapestry; almost a symphony. It lacked the dramatic ingenuity of This Land at the Yorkshire Playhouse last year: but it was musically far superior.

The Arts theater is a very small venue -- thirty seconds from Leicester Square, but feeling like the "fringe". It wasn't full, but that allowed the cast to create a real connection with the audience. They come onto the stage as the auditorium is filling up and play some old time instrumental numbers. Lutken says high to the audience, asks them to check their mobile phones, apologise for the frog in his throat, tells us they'll be a "hootenanny" after the show on Saturday, and then starts to talk about how much Woody meant to him when he was first learning to play the guitar in Texas.

That sets the tone. The cast are telling the story, and singing the songs, and acting out some of the characters, but it's never really a play. More a concert with dramatic interludes. Some of the numbers are performed in full. Darcie Deaville  gives us Union Maid;  the entire company does So Long It's Been Good To Know Ya.  Andy Teirston, with his big, smiley, old-timer eyes takes us through Talkin' Dust Bowl Blues ("filled it full of that gas-o-line -- that's what you call PETROL...") as well as providing a cross-talk partner for some of Woody's jokes. Including the one about the one-eyed banker who bets the farmer that he can't spot which is his glass eye ("Oh, I just looked for the one that had glint of compassion in it...and knew that had to be the glass one.").

But other songs only come through in snatches. We're asked, cleverly if not quite convincingly, to see the Grapes of Wrath as a kind of template for Guthrie's life, and verses of the Ballad of Tom Joad run right through the evening, as a kind of chorus.

It's Lutken's night, of course. Everyone is on their feet, clapping, for the final reprise of This Land, although, in a way, the scene in Act 1 where Woody tries to sing about that big ol' sign saying "Private Property" and is kicked off the wireless (and replaced with a Pepsi commercial!) is more telling. The play's maybe a little coy about Guthrie's communism. We see him singing "Ain't Going Study War No More" with the left-wing Almanac singers. He pulls a clipping of one of his newspaper columns from his pocket, and reads that if the capitalists and land-lords didn't build walls and create borders, there wouldn't be no wars. But then he decides that "There's a difference between wanting something to end and wanting to end it" before going into the ultra-patriotic Sinking of the Reuben James. Well, yes: but mixed in with that pacifism was surely a disturbingly pro-Stalinist communist party line.

The most telling moment in the production isn't Union Maid or Reuben James or even Lutken's brilliantly melancholic account of the Great Dust Storm Disaster. It's Woody sitting on the edge of the stage, describing how he returned from a gig to find that there had been an electrical fire in his home and his baby daughter for whom --indeed, with whom -- he wrote Car, Car and the other nursery ballads, has been burned to death. Almost immediately, the narrator figure goes into the last line of Tom Joad ("wherever people are hungry and starve / wherever people ain't free / wherever men are fighting for their lives / that's where I'm a gonna be"). Woody replies with "nobody living / can make me turn back / this land was made for you and me"....and begins his long slow decline which ends with him in the mental ward of Brooklyn State mental hospital.

Woody Guthrie was a more complicated character than you can put into a two-hour play, and it isn't unreasonable to "print the legend" when you are dramatizing the life of a man who spent most of his short career inventing mythologizing himself. This was a pretty damn good play, and at absolutely first rate musical tribute.