Review: This Land: The Story of Woody Guthrie, Zoo Southside (Venue 82)

Like many biographical tales, this one begins at the end, then rewinds to the start.

Star rating: * * * *

When we first meet Woody Guthrie, he is ravaged by Huntington’s disease, the illness that would kill him prematurely aged just 55. All around him lie musical instruments – guitars, banjo, fiddle, double bass – along with seven other actor/musicians, so we know we’re in for a lively journey through the music legend’s life.

Taking a feather from his pocket (with difficulty – the Huntington’s is taking its toll on his movements), Guthrie blows it into the air, in the direction of another performer. It is this motif that links the entire show. Each time Guthrie moves on to a new chapter in his life, out comes the feather like a theatrical relay baton, and another actor steps into the lead role.

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It has nothing to do with age, size or how the actors look – there’s no gradual growing up or growing old – just a clever device that clearly marks out the fascinating, and often tragic, life that Guthrie led.

Born in 1912, to a father who dabbled in local politics and a mother who carried the disease that killed both her and her son, Guthrie started life in a small Oklahoma town. A childhood laced with sadness, caused by his sister’s death in a fire and his mother being committed to a mental hospital, paved the way for a life of empathic songwriting and political involvement.

Leeds-based theatre company Interplay do a fine job of capturing the atmosphere of the various locations Guthrie called home, from those early days in Oklahoma to his discovery of music-making in Texas, plying his craft in California and New York and serving in the Marines in the Second World War.

Each of the aspects of Guthrie’s life – family, music and politics – is given equal weighting. Some of the man’s finest music, including the rousing title track, This Land Is Your Land, is played with gusto or sensitivity, whichever Guthrie’s tale requires.

Until 20 August. Today 6:30pm.