Studs Terkel (1912–2008) was a highly respected American writer and broadcaster who published several collections of oral histories. His conversations with ‘ordinary people’ revealed profound social, economic and personal truths about the times. Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, this show brings to life the author’s 1974 book, Working, with spoken narratives and songs that illuminate gritty accounts of trying to earn a living in the USA.
The cast of eight actor/singers play multiple parts across professions as diverse as truck driver, nanny, hedge fund manager, prostitute, stone mason and flight attendant. Their narratives range from funny or quirky (a UPS delivery man startling attractive women for his own entertainment) to desperately sad (a woman enduring mind-numbing monotony on a factory assembly line). Cleverly, the script both documents a lost way of life and – bravely building upon Terkel’s source material – offers subtle updates to more recent working scenarios by utilising innovations such as e-mail and mobile phones. At the centre of these varied tales are the same recurring questions. How much should your job define you? What does it mean to spend so much of your existence in employment? And do we have a right to expect our work to be satisfactory and meaningful?
The stage set is an ingenious split-level scaffold structure resembling part of a construction site. This is compartmentalised to allow each actor their own designated area within it. The brilliant direction by Amanda Noar allows for these spaces to be suddenly spotlit or thrown into darkness, emphasising parallels or curious juxtapositions between workers as their confessions and experiences begin to dovetail.
A four-piece band led by musical director Jamie Noar embrace a diverse range of styles and moods, from big, brassy anthems to restrained, low-key heartbreakers. The stand-out moments are numerous, but the most memorable include ‘Just a Housewife’ sung by Lara Beth-Sas and ‘It’s an Art’ performed by Hannah Cheetham as a proud waitress determined to recognise the value in her role.
In parts, it’s hugely emotional – particularly when the full ensemble unite to complement each other’s stories and songs. You really feel you’ve had an insight into other people’s lives. Terkel’s gift was to show sufficient empathy for his interview subjects to bring out the very best in them. It’s a great credit to this production that it does the same.
“The three leads perform their powerfully naturalistic lines with immaculate timing and almost exhilarating rancour”
In a crime and drugs plagued central Birmingham district, three siblings grapple with the seemingly everyday task of disposing of their father’s flat following his move to a care home. However, the central role of Jamie (Paul Westwood) is haunted by a gambling addiction, presaged even before the play opens by the sinister sounds of gaming machines. So, there’s a growing sense of unease from the off as Jamie bickers and banters first with his domineering brother Danny (Charlie Allen), then with his sister Michelle (Kathryn O’Reilly), run ragged by single-motherhood and poorly paid work leavened only by casual drug use. The filth-flecked dialogue flows in a breathless stream of malign gossip and invective, barely concealing all the characters’ craving for one form of instant gratification or another and the reduction of their relationships to the purely transactional.
What starts as a topical, issue-led drama heading for a morality tale ending, then shifts its ground in the last quarter with the appearance of the father himself (David Whitworth) in a flashback scene revealing a goodness behind Jamie’s fecklessness, and much badness elsewhere, turning kitchen sink realism into a slightly contrived whodunnit. On our way to this denouement we discover that documents have gone missing, the flat has been taken off the market, and the sinking feeling widens into a bottomless chasm, drawing all three in.
The three leads perform their powerfully naturalistic lines with immaculate timing and almost exhilarating rancour, with the refreshingly sympathetic role of their father bringing a well-judged counterpoint at the end. Direction by Clemmie Reynolds is just as precise, benefitting from some imaginative sound and lighting from Alex McNally. Emily Megson’s set somehow makes the grim, claustrophobic flat fill the ample Greenwich Theatre stage whilst making the grimy furnishings form a pleasing tableau and costume by Emily Ntinas is subtly spot on – literally, in the case of the stains ornamenting Michelle’s stretch jeans.
A very impressive full-length debut from Paul Westwood, though lacking in resonance for anyone expecting an indictment of the causes and culture behind these blighted lives. As satisfying as the twist is, and as masterly as the characterisations are, a move from social commentary to a plot revelation in flashback does entail a loss of emotional engagement, not to say a few questions in the mind of the audience as they leave.