Working Musical – Southwark Playhouse until 8th July
★★★★ ‘An excellent company piece’
Review by Rosalind Freeborn
Working – You meet someone at a party. The first question is nearly always: ‘What do you do?’ We are curious, it’s a starting point for a conversation and upon the answer we tend to judge whether it’s going to be interesting to find out more.
We all work at something whether it’s high finance, teaching, building, making, caring or just filling our time. Studs Terkel, the American author, has made it his life’s work to gather stories from ordinary working people. He wrote a book entitled Working in 1974 and has continued to listen, record and try to understand what people do and what people think about what they do.
This musical is a bold attempt to bring to life just a handful of the stories Terkel assembled. The authenticity and sincerity of the words are powerful. Simple descriptions of repetitive jobs, disappointment with the way life turned out, delight at small victories and pride in achievements are beautifully captured and convey a real sense of the person telling the story.
Directed with panache
This excellent company piece, directed with panache by Luke Sheppard and imaginative choreography by Fabian Aloise, picks up the lives of people and the tales they tell in short but powerful scenes, many featuring songs contributed by a variety of musical and lyrical talents. For example, we have Millwork, a song written by James Taylor about the strenuous factory work which turns a body into a manufacturing tool; there’s a charming song called Delivery by Lin-Manuel Miranda (of Hamilton fame) about a delivery boy who loves delivering fast food to customers delighting in the words he longs to hear…. ‘keep the change!’
A disillusioned teacher wonders how to engage with contemporary classrooms full of children who ‘don’t know how to behave’, written by Mary Rogers, and Stephen Schwartz contributes a sassy song about a waitress who says of her work ‘It’s an art’.
The highly talented lead performers morph effortlessly into their different characters, supported by fellow players and a younger cast who might represent their younger selves or the colleagues, workmates and customers they interact with. We have first class acting and singing from Gillian Bevan, Dean Chisnall, Krysten Cummings, Siubhan Harrison, Peter Polycarpou and Liam Tamne each of whom tell many stories with great energy and wit, sensitivity and pathos.
I’m just ……….
As with descriptions of jobs, there’s a tendency to say ‘I’m JUST a….’, whatever it is. Working gives real dignity to all the characters depicted. As a short musical (just 90 minutes) it’s very enjoyable but almost too fragmented for an audience to ever really engage with the characters. I found myself longing to know more about each story – did she get the qualifications, did he make that leap to a ‘better life’, did they change the way they lived? This was expressed in the line: ‘If I could have been what I wanted to be then I could have been someone.’
The musical concludes with a rousing chorus of ‘Something to Point to’, an assertion that, no matter how small your contribution might have felt at the time, the end result would not have succeeded or be there to see if you hadn’t done your bit. You can look at a building and say: I put that steel there, I designed that window, I cleaned that floor.
It’s a charming and wistful message – everybody should have “something to point to”.
Book Here for Southwark Playhouse