Arts Theatre, London WC2
Opened 18 January, 2011

To a great extent this production will stand or fall on how well its material travels. Britons may know of Woody Guthrie and have a vague, general idea of him as a mid-20th-century protest folk singer, but he is not part of our national fabric; we are not immediately familiar with songs such as “This Land Is Your Land” or “This Train Is Bound For Glory”. We have the General Strike and the Jarrow march (a decade apart, I know) where American social history’s corresponding landmarks are the creation of the Dust Bowl and the consequent westward migrations. Guthrie as an icon does not immediately chime with us; the show has to sell him to us. By and large, it does.
Its format is bog-standard musical biography: narrative passages in third or (mainly) first person interspersed with songs. Unsurprisingly, too, the final 15 years or so of the life of Woodrow Wilson Guthrie (1912–1967) are skimmed over, as hereditary Huntington’s chorea took its progressive, degenerative toll; the final segment of narrative serves as much to namecheck Guthrie’s son Arlo and his self-appointed musical heir, the young Bob Dylan, as to complete the portrait of the man. It is the songs and performances that carry the evening, together with perhaps a sense of timeliness. As Guthrie tells of ordinary folks lured into homelessness and never-ending debt by credit traps and sings satirical indictments like “Jolly Banker”, one may feel that what went around then has come around again.
It is surprising how much casually dressed co-writer and central performer David M Lutken comes to resemble Guthrie simply by donning that trademark cap. He and his comrades Darcie Deaville, Helen Jean Russell and David Teirstein let the songs do the driving whenever possible and perform them with good nature, vim and virtuosity on a range of instruments including not just guitars, fiddles, banjo and mandolin but dobro, autoharp, lap dulcimer and even Jew’s harp and spoons. The 350-seat Arts Theatre is small enough for electrification of the music to be unnecessary, which increases the sense of connection; folk music needs to feel amongst the folk, after all. This show, if not bound for glory as such, at least deserves to repeat its 2009 Edinburgh Fringe success in the West End.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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