Woody Sez: the life and music of Woody Guthrie
Devised/directed by David M Lutken and Nick Corley
The Arts Theatre London, to 2 April
Reviewed by Manny Thain
This is the tale of the legendary Woody Guthrie, a real folk hero. Born in Oklahoma in 1912 he has inspired countless singer/songwriters with songs of the working class and poor in the great depression of the 1930s and beyond.
This play, with David M Lutken in the lead accompanied by Darcie Deaville, Helen Russell and David Finch, lets the songs do most of the talking - packing in nearly 30.
The set is sparse: a backdrop of photos, an array of musical instruments, with which the cast bring this rich story to life. Woody's father, Charles, had been a property dealer, at times relatively comfortably off, at other times down-at-heel.
His mother, Nora, ill for years with Huntingdon's disease, had a compulsion for setting things on fire. And, after burning down the family home, she was sent to the Oklahoma Hospital for the Insane, where she died in 1930.
Woody hit the road, writing songs of small farmers hit by dust storms, driven off the land by bankers and big business.
He sang of strike-breaking thugs: "Tell me why does a vigilante man/Carry that sawn-off shotgun in his hand?/Would he shoot his brother and sister down?"
Although a time of terrible hardship, it was also one of great radicalisation, the rise of militant industrial unions: "This union maid was wise to the tricks of company spies/She couldn't be fooled by a company stool, she'd always organise the guys...
"Oh, you can't scare me I'm sticking to the union... Til the day I die." Woody became a fellow traveller of the Communist Party.
The play's title, in fact, comes from the regular column he wrote in its newspaper, The Daily Worker. In 1940 he wrote his most famous song, This Land is Your Land, as an antidote to God Bless America.
He joined the merchant navy during the second world war, a move which shadowed the change in the CP line - following the end of the Hitler/Stalin pact when the Nazis invaded Russia in 1941.
But what drove Woody most of all was his instinctive class solidarity with European workers.
He emblazoned on his guitar: 'This machine kills fascists.'
From the late 1940s, Woody's behaviour became increasingly erractic, at times violent, as he succumbed to Huntingdon's. Hospitalised in 1956, he died in 1967.
Through all the heartache, this play is uplifting, a breath of fresh air, a celebration of working-class life, struggle and achievement. The Internationale rings out - not too common in London's West End.
Woody Guthrie gave the voiceless a voice.
And these songs live on. Woody would seethe at the greed of today's banksters in today's great recession.
He would recognise the camps in the US, filled with thousands driven out of their homes by the subprime mortgage rip-off. Woody Guthrie once said: "I hate a song that makes you think that you are not any good.
"I hate a song that makes you think that you are just born to lose... No good for nothing.
"Because you are too old or too young or too fat or too slim, too ugly or too this or that... I am out to fight those songs to my very last breath of air and my last drop of blood." And Woody Sez it all.