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.
“A fun musical buzzing with great stories, music and dance“
Anything with a link to Lin-Manuel Miranda is bound to attract attention and for this alone there will be many Miranda followers who will buy a ticket to see Working which features some of his music. For a wider audience anyone lucky enough to attend this show will leave with a spring in their step and a smile on their face.
Working is the European Premiere of an extraordinary musical from Grammy and Academy Award-winner Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) based on Studs Terkel’s 1974 best-selling book of interviews with the American workforce. It provides a portrait of the American workday told from the perspective of those so often overlooked, be it a schoolteacher, millworker, housewife care worker, nanny or waitress, amongst many.
Production Photography by Robert Workman
The Southwark Playhouse has gained a reputation for staging remarkable musicals and Working should be added to the list of current must see shows. There is much to admire of this production. The set and costumes reflect a grimy industrial background, the music is expertly performed and there is an outstanding cast of twelve that exudes enthusiasm and obvious love for the show.
Taking the main parts are experienced stage actors Gillian Bevan, Dean Chisnall, Krysten Cummings, Siubhan Harrison, Peter Polycarpou and Liam Tamne. They play several different characters during the show.
LtoR Nicola Espallardo, Huon Mackley, Izuka Hoyle, Patrick Coulter, Luke Latchman & Kerri Norville. Photo by Darren Bell.
A further six carefully selected theatre graduates support the action and those making their professional debut are Patrick Coulter, Nicola Espallardo, Izuka Hoyle, Luke Latchman, Huon Mackley and Kerri Norville. On this showing they have a great future ahead.
The show bursts into life from the very first minute with Fabian Aloise’s thrilling choreography grabbing the audience’s attention and over the next 90 minutes there is so much to enjoy. It is high energy production that rarely stops to breathe. The lighting and sound enhances the overall experience.
A talented cast performs each of the stories expertly throughout though standout songs are James Taylor’s Millwork expertly portrayed by Siubhan Harrison; Peter Polycarpou brings a tear to the eye with Fathers and Sons and Krysten Cummings hits the spot with Just a Housewife, an anthem for a job the importance of which is often overlooked. There is a character for everyone to identify with and at the end the show we get to understand that everyone’s job is as important as everyone else’s, different though they may be.
Working is playing for a strictly limited season at the Southwark Playhouse, 77-85 Newington Causeway, London SE1 6BD ending 8 July 2017.