Upstairs at the Gatehouse
Reviewed – 12th September 2019
“brilliant direction by Amanda Noar”
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.
Reviewed by Stephen Fall
Photography by Colin Allen
Upstairs at the Gatehouse until 22nd September
Previously reviewed at this venue:
Bridge House Theatre
Reviewed – 1st December 2018
“For all its narrative flaws, it would take a stonier heart than mine to resist this dose of festive cheer and performance by a talented cast”
First things first: the vocal skills on display in this show are great. So great in fact, they unfortunately serve to highlight an at times baffling plot.
The Plaids are a sixties close harmony group who, in the Forever Plaid musical which precedes this, lose their lives in a tragic accident but return to earth to seek stardom. This instalment sees them again travel from the firmament to regale us with festive delights because … well, a convincing reason is elusive.
This doesn’t really matter, but it also becomes apparent that it’s the Plaids’ lifelong ambition to have their own Christmas TV special. This is one of several indications of a critical challenge for audiences: a Pacific-sized gap in cultural reference which is hard to traverse. For American viewers for whom the annual variety show is a central part of the holidays, this would make more sense.
The central premise, then, feels weaker than a melting icicle. But the musical performances are great fun; we find ourselves hankering for the next song during dialogue expounding the curious narrative. Lines are delivered with sometimes excessively earnest if admirable gusto, and one or two of the accents are America by way of the UK. In such a small venue, the brio (and later, the handbells) can border on the overpowering.
The studio space, above a great-looking pub, does allow for the full benefit of the music, especially in the fun a cappella Sha-Boom (Life Could Be A Dream). Musical Director Laurie Denman on the piano as well as voice is especially cracking, with a rendition of Kiss of Fire bringing comedic physicality into the slower first half. Later, ‘Twuz Tha Nite B4 Xmas introduces a welcome slice of funk to cut through the saccharine and It’s Beginning To Look Like Christmas has us swaying. Passing mention must be made of fact that during the music and movement, the noisy stage surface becomes an occasional distraction.
Plaid Tidings first came about in a California theatre following the bleakness of 9/11. Arguably, we’re again in dire need of an injection of gentle fun. But Pasadena in 2001 is a long way from contemporary London, and some of the clumsier elements are at odds in the diverse south of the capital. There is an uneasiness in affecting the required Jamaican accent (‘she take ma money and go Christmas shopping’) during one audience singalong. The group wisely limit the Caribbean affectation, but what remains jars today. Equally, the group’s apparent horror when they find themselves under the mistletoe is lazy; is the idea of men kissing really so shocking in 2018?
The evening closes with a collective rendition of Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas. The audience applauds enthusiastically. For all its narrative flaws, it would take a stonier heart than mine to resist this dose of festive cheer and performance by a talented cast.
Reviewed by Abi Davies
Photography by Jamie Scott-Smith
Bridge House Theatre until 23rd December
Other shows reviewed by Abi Davies: