All entries for Tuesday 26 April 2011

April 26, 2011

Woody Sez, Arts Theatre

5 stars


If it hadn’t been for a friend’s recommendation, I probably wouldn’t have been to see Woody Sez, a musical about the American folk singer of the mid-twentieth century, Woody Guthrie, devised by David M. Lutken. Luckily, my ignorance is not typical and nor did it stop me going, and Woody Guthrie has a loyal following of all ages, most of whom had flocked excitedly to this show. Guthrie, it transpires, was an important folk singer who bravely confronted his country’s politics, and irked the government, through his songs. With hindsight I wouldn’t have missed this show for the world and, far from being a nostalgic tribute work, the piece pointed out the uncanny relevance that Guthrie’s lyrics and sentiments have to our society today, with songs such as ‘Jolly Banker’ and ‘So Long It’s Been Good To Know Yuh’ striking chords in our financially stricken era both here and across the pond.

David M. Lutken’s ingenious show is one of the most original around. Playing Woody Guthrie with a mellow gravitas and sense of humour that is like a razor wrapped in cotton wool, he narrates Woody’s life in the first person earnestly and directly. He is supported by a super-talented cast of actor/musicians, who can not only all act, sing and play an instrument, but can play a myriad of different instruments, switching between them effortlessly. There is no tuning up, warming up or lining up sheet music – the instruments are plucked from the wings and played with a spontaneous abandon that is infectious. Each musical number, therefore, has a unique timbre, from the haunting beauty of Ruth Clarke-Irons accompanying herself on fiddle as she sings snippets of ‘The Ballad of Tom Joad’ throughout the show, to the exhilarating bluegrass sound of something like ‘This Train is Bound for Glory’.

Each actor takes on several cameo roles of people that featured in Guthrie’s life from his unstable, pyromaniac mother (played sensitively by Helen Jean Russell, who gives an exquisite rendition of ‘Curly Headed Baby’) to his eccentric fiddle-playing uncle (played by William Wolfe Hogan, who gives a manically virtuosic rendition of ‘Talkin’ Dust Bowl’) to his young daughter (played by Ruth Clarke-Irons, who drives forward the hilarious and poignant ‘Riding in the Car’ song).

It’s an inspiring example of ensemble theatre and sensitive musical ensemble all in one. The performers accompany each other just as well as they take the limelight. There are passages of mouth-watering harmony and some songs so rousing that the audience are singing along more loudly than the performers. The direction and musical direction are impressively slick meaning that each musical number has effective contour lines and moments of choreographic brilliance.

There is an appealing simplicity and innocence to this show that musicals rarely have the confidence to parade these days. But it’s not prim or old-fashioned in the least and pokes fun at its own individuality (Lutken jokes that they’re going to do a medley for the finale, like in Mamma Mia). The simplicity is effectively achieved through the performers remaining in one costume throughout, the scenery staying the same (projections of Guthrie, a plough in a field, and the deathly dust storm that is recollected), the performers not being mic-ed, as well as the direct, first-person narration that propels the story forward. Similarly, Guthrie’s life is poignant, significant and has political repercussions, but in other ways is unremarkable. It takes artistic confidence and vision to pull off something like this, but David M. Lutken and his talented team obviously have such qualities in wagonfuls.

A View from the Bridge, Barn Theatre, Welwyn Garden City

5 stars

I had the rare and precious treat of not knowing A View from the Bridge prior to this performance. Having read, studied or seen most of Miller’s work, all of which I consider to be nothing short of masterful, for one reason or another this one was, up until recently, something of a mystery to me.

I now think A View from the Bridge is truly one of Miller’s best plays, largely because he does what Miller does exceptionally well, but in a strikingly powerful way: he presents us with a misguided and morally dubious protagonist, Eddie Carbone, a longshoreman, plays out his wrongdoings and downfall in front of our eyes, and then makes us weep for him. As the fascinatingly pivotal character of Alfieri the lawyer says at the end about Eddie Carbone, “And so I mourn him – I admit it – with a certain . . . alarm”.

Eddie lives in Brooklyn with his wife, Beatrice, and his niece from Beatrice’s side, 18-year-old Catherine, who he has brought up as a daughter. As the play develops, Eddie’s attachment to Catherine increases, his attention to his wife diminishes, and the arrival of Beatrice’s Italian immigrant brother and friend, Marco and Rodolpho, provokes a battle over Catherine as she becomes a pawn in a power struggle which throws up questions of masculinity, familial loyalty, immigration, and personal choice.

Director Jack Wood has created a stonking production of this play at Welwyn Garden City’s tiny Barn Theatre. With the stage being the size of one room in a doll’s house, the actors are practically on top of one another, creating the ever-growing feeling of overcrowding that builds in the play as more people enter Eddie Carbone’s household, exacerbating his own need to cling onto Catherine singularly.

Eddie is played expertly by Patrick Sunners, whose helplessness in the face of uncontrollable and unmentionable desire for his niece comes across beautifully. He has a swagger and a bear-like demeanour, often indulging in displays of Italian animation, staking his claim petulantly and vocally to his home, his niece, and something less tangible that he can’t put his finger on. “I want my respect, Beatrice, and you know what I’m talkin’ about”. Beatrice doesn’t know what he’s talking about, however, and, more to the point, nor does Eddie. Like a toddler who hasn’t yet got the capacity to formulate words, Eddie flounders around trying to articulate what it is that he wants and what exactly his problem is with the young Rodolpho. “He ain’t right, Beatrice”, Eddie says of Rodolpho (Elliot Brown), who has quickly become Catherine’s young suitor, but who Eddie has noted has red hair, cooks, sings and makes dresses. Eddie’s inability to name and confront the hostility he feels towards Rodolpho, and the feeling he himself harbours for Catherine, is his undoing, and the action kaleidoscopes chaotically around him, to the tune of Eddie’s orders, leading to his eventual ruin.

Jan Palmer Sayer is excellent as Eddie’s wife – strident yet sensitive, sure yet sympathetic, and with a slightly gruff edge. Sayer masters the difficult job of showing true tenderness towards her niece, while also revealing the jealousy that she feels for the attention that Catherine receives from Eddie. The young Jennifer Macchia plays Catherine with a sweetness and ease, which makes Beatrice’s sympathy towards her believable. She has a gentle keen-to-please expression while in Eddie’s company, but an innocence which clears her of any sense of compliance in his attraction. Her eventual tirade against Eddie, when she describes him as a “rat”, is made all the more powerful because of Macchia’s sweet poise in the rest of the play. There is also a notably strong performance from Clive Weatherley as Alfieri, suitably detached from the rest of the Italian immigrant community. Occupying the lower part of the stage (an interesting touch by the director, which subverts the notion of this character as a god-like figure),there is a stiffness and angularity to Weatherley’s body language, which highlight how his thoughts and decisions are dictated by logic and rationality, rather than by impulse, as Eddie’s all are. Alfieri’s powerful speech at the end of the play as he acknowledges the attachment that he feels to this flawed human being, Eddie Carbone, and his pointless existence, is made all the more moving by the actor’s rather rigid and professional persona throughout.

This is an altogether powerful production in which the only slight drawback is the limited peripheral space which the neighbourhood locals have to crowd into. I can now add A View from the Bridge to my collection of Miller masterpieces. It is especially powerful when Miller shows us how wrong can grow out of good intentions. “A man works hard, he brings up a child, sometimes it’s a niece, sometimes even a daughter, and he never realizes it, but through the years – there is too much love for the daughter, there is too much love for the niece” Alfieri explains to Eddie. Eddie loved Catherine, provided for her, brought her up, and then somehow missed the point at which he was supposed to let go.


Patrick Sunners as Eddie Carbone and Jan Palmer Sayer as Eddie’s wife, Beatrice.

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