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vancouverplays review


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— Production photo

Adapted from Robert E. Swanson
The Other Guys Theatre Company
Firehall Arts Centre
Aug. 7-19
604-689-0926 or

(This is Jerry's review of the production that played at the Firehall in 2012)

Logging in BC has fallen on hard times. Mills are closed or closing or burning down, and many of the towns that relied on them are barely hanging on. Those that remain have difficulty getting a regular supply of good logs due to the decimation of the pine beetle epidemic—and the fact that the really big trees are long gone. Most of us city folk have little sympathy for what seems like an environmentally retrograde industry, an anachronism in our post-industrial century.

But once upon a time not that long ago, logging was the mainstay of the provincial economy and the big trees were icons of the British Columbian identity. Good Timber, an evocative musical revue from The Other Guys Theatre Company in Victoria, celebrates those times and the harsh, rugged, romantic world of the loggers. It plays all this week at the Firehall Arts Centre on East Cordova, near where the big logs used to be sent down the skid road to the harbour.
Good Timber puts the narrative poetry of Robert E. Swanson to music. Known as “the Bard of the Woods,” Swanson published four books of Robert Service style ballads in the 1940s and ‘50s about BC’s forests and the special breed of men and women who lived off them. Six talented performers sing Swanson’s comic stories plus a few of their own, and play more than a dozen instruments.

All this is set against a backdrop of extraordinary archival photos and film, beautifully edited and projected by John Carswell. They show us a lost world of unbelievably  gigantic trees and ridiculously brave, foolhardy workers.

Imagine a really great Vancouver Folk Festival set with remarkable projection footage and you’ll have some idea of the Good Timber experience. The excellent music, arranged by Tobin Stokes, has an old timey quality, fronted by guitars, banjo, fiddle, mandolin, mouth harp, saws, and a variety of percussion thingies made of pieces of industrial metal. But you also hear echoes of Gordon Lightfoot, and not just in the train songs like Faithful Unto the End, composed and performed by John Gogo.

Among my favourites are a couple of pieces by Mark Hellman who plays killer guitar and does a kind of talking blues in the style of early Dylan. In “BC Hiball,” one of Swanson’s best poems, Hellman sings about a logging truck navigating the treacherous roads carved into the mountains, careening down a twenty-two percent grade, loaded with giant old-growth. The projections show us an ancient truck carrying an impossibly big load of stupendous logs down just such a road. It’s mind-boggling to realize that what sounds like bizarre comic exaggeration was reality.

A lot of the songs pay homage to the machinery on which the loggers relied. In “Cat Skinner’s Prayer” they pray to “the god of industrial combustion” for “the grease of perfection,” and for pistons and gears that will never wear out. But mostly they celebrate the people: characters like Rough House Pete, the Gal from the Soo, and the Frozen Logger who stirs his coffee with his thumb and buttons his shirt only when the temperature hits minus forty.

 All the voices are good but Colleen Eccleston is a standout, especially in the harmonies. Joining her, Gogo, and Hellman are Kelt Eccleston, Ross Desprez, who also directs, and Sarah Donald, whose fiddling is superb.

There’s not much structure to Good Timber and no over-arching narrative. One song just follows another at a good clip for ninety minutes without intermission, telling a pretty amazing story of the way we were. 

Jerry Wasserman