Photo: Wendy Mutz

Woody Guthrie was the ultimate folk musician – a politically outspoken troubadour and a voice for ordinary Americans in troubled times. He went on to inspire future generations and show that, at its best, folk music engages with the world and brings poetry to the ideals that the singer holds true. In this uplifting trip through his life and music, four talented musicians infuse Woody’s songs with an optimistic zeal, proving why the man was so important to American folk music.

We travel with Woody from birth to premature death as he makes his way from coast to coast and back again: busking, ruffling feathers on local radio, and experiencing the same hardships as so many men did at the time, from life in the Dust Bowl to the demands of war. The images of Woody and the vast open landscape of the Midwest are effective and simple, while the wealth of guitars, banjos and other instruments that litter the stage instantly evoke a concert hall setting. Yet although the costumes are suitably unglamorous, they are frankly not ragged or grubby enough to convey the hardship of the Depression, and leave a disappointingly sanitised impression.

David M. Lutken is a gangly Woody with a friendly smile and strong voice. He is solely responsible for ensuring the audience keep up with him on his journey, largely through monologue and song. Although the songs come thick and fast, Lutken does manage to achieve a degree of quiet emotion in the darker periods in Woody’s life, most powerfully when recounting the death of his sister and daughter. We get a sense of the man through the rebellious content of his songs and the way that he uses music to cope with the tragedies he experiences in life. However, at times. the drama would be more satisfying if we saw more depth or explanation behind certain aspects of his character. For a man who iconically scrawled the words “This Machine Kills Fascists” on the side of his guitar, his political affiliations and engagements are readily accepted without their origins or full fervour being thoroughly explored. What we do see through his music is a dissatisfaction with the political order and an identification with the working man, which results in some of Woody Sez‘s most surprisingly relevant moments. From the Republican baiting ‘So Long It’s Been Good to Know Yuh’ to ‘Jolly Banker’, which points fun at unfeeling creditors, this musical may be about a historical era but its biting sentiments are as relevant today as they were 70 years ago.

Three other multi-instrumentalists accompany Lutken throughout, taking the roles of the many and varied acquaintances Woody meets on his travels. Their vocals and musicianship are impressive, and together they give a spirited performance of Woody’s music; however, with constant chopping and changing, very little dialogue, and at times limited characterisation, they fail to develop fully as any of the characters. Andy Teirstein does various good comic turns, although some of the direction of the slapstick humour is a little clunky at times. Darcie Deaville makes an excellent Lefty Lou and seems most confident when giving full range to her hearty voice, which is appropriately that of a true folk singer rather than a musical theatre actress. Lutken accurately acknowledges that Helen Russell has the “prettiest voice” in the world, and although brief, the connection between mother and son that the two create is moving.

As a first-class tribute to Guthrie’s music there is little to fault these musicians on, and the group numbers are suitably rousing, with the strains of ‘Union Maid’, ‘This Train is Bound for Glory’ and ‘This Land is Your Land’ staying with you long after you leave the auditorium. Yet as a piece of theatre, Woody Sez is more wanting, as Lutken’s performance alone and the moments of connection he achieves are not quite enough to carry the piece dramatically. That said, if you want a thoroughly enjoyable rootin’ tootin’ night of folk music, then you will not be disappointed.

Woody Sez runs at the Arts Theatre, London until 2nd April.