Woody Sez

Issue section: 
(355)

Until 2 April 2011, Arts Theatre West End, London

Woody Sez could be categorised as a jukebox musical. But, unlike We Will Rock You or Mamma Mia, there's no glitz or glamour. Refreshingly, there are no microphones or belting voices, just the intimate experience of four musicians messing about on a dozen or so instruments and singing through the hard times of the life of Woody Guthrie.

The charm of this show is the simplicity with which the songs are woven into a fabric of a story that blows Woody across the US, learning about all kinds of folk from the songs they sing. Many of these people were migrants and Woody felt as though he had travelled across the world, discovering their stories and picking up their tunes, rhythms and words.

Born in 1912 in the brand new state of Oklahoma, the coming of the dust storms pushed him to look for work in California along with thousands of other workers. He took with him the hillbilly folk songs of where he grew up and made enough money singing them on the radio to send home to his wife and kids. The rest of his life was to see him travel to where he could find work, sometimes with his family and sometimes without.

From the depths of the Great Depression and to his times with Pete Seeger singing at union halls, Woody discovered how to be the voice of the people he met.

The tales are plainly told and demonstrate how Woody lived the life he sang about - often hungry, often ramblin' and often suffering from the sorrow around him. A strong sense of injustice pervaded everything, as did an understanding that the people in his world were exploited and downtrodden by the mighty.

He eschewed the term "poet", claiming every word came from those he met along the way. In Woody Sez, as throughout his life, the high-spirited rhythms and the power of song shine through and keep alive the hope that one day, like the rabbits hiding in the log from the pack of preying dogs, we will outnumber 'em.