Thursday, 15 June 2017

Theatre review: Working

Studs Terkel has been one of America’s favourite radio hosts and journalists since 1945, and is known especially for his interviews with regular people and the books he’s published collecting them. Working, which unsurprisingly looks at people from the perspective of their jobs, is the most famous of these, but is still an unlikely subject for a musical, and Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso’s adaptation is in its turn an unusual musical: In its current form, only three of the songs are by the Wicked composer himself, as Schwartz asked a number of other writers and musicians to contribute different voices. Craig Carnelia is the most frequent contributor with four songs, James Taylor and Micki Grant each provide two, and there’s one by Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead. Since its 1977 debut it’s been further rejigged, so now it also boasts the current biggest name in musical theatre with two songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

Southwark Playhouse’s recent record of attracting big musical theatre names to perform in its Large space continues here, with Luke Sheppard’s production featuring several faces usually seen in the West End.

They’re required to play numerous characters as the show keeps the format of the book’s series of unconnected interviews, usually alternating songs with (verbatim?) monologues by the interviewees – the conceit is that the six-strong young chorus are a school party on a trip to find out about the world of work, with each of the characters giving them a spiel about what they do and how they feel about it. There’s a couple of high-flying, high-earning career people who don’t come off particularly well, but mostly the focus is on the easily overlooked, difficult and thankless jobs that used to at least offer job security but in recent years have lost that as well.

There’s also a lot of pride in unexpected places though - Krysten Cummings’ prostitute is utterly defiant about having a better job than other women in her family while Gillian Bevan’s waitress (“It’s An Art” – Schwartz) takes pride in being the absolute best at it. In Miranda’s second contribution, “A Very Good Day,” Liam Tamne is a carer and Siubhan Harrison a nanny, both with closer relationships to their charges than their own families. In a scene that’ll hit home particularly hard in London at the moment, Dean Chisnall is a former cop-turned-firefighter who changed careers because the latter was better for maintaining his faith in humanity.

Then there’s Peter Polycarpou’s Joe, who’s retired but tries to keep his days as full as they were when he worked (“Joe” – Carnelia,) and a reminder of the fact that driving a truck long distance is a strangely romanticised job in America, in a way that nobody really seems to think about driving a Lidl lorry on the North Circular (“Brother Trucker” – Taylor.) The established lead cast are all very good, as are the newcomers in the ensemble (apart from a bit of overly-enthusiastic face acting,) and Sheppard’s production, with grubby designs by Jean Chan, is as slick and entertaining as you’d expect. But the show’s structure is very limiting as to how involved we can get with the characters, who not only pop in and out of the play never to be seen again, but crucially also have no relationship with each other. It means that while there’s some good songs and individual moments have power, Working can’t build any momentum.

Working by Stephen Schwartz, Nina Faso, Craig Carnelia, James Taylor, Micki Grant, Mary Rodgers, Susan Birkenhead and Lin-Manuel Miranda, based on Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do by Studs Terkel, is booking until the 8th of July at Southwark Playhouse’s Large Theatre.

Running time: 1 hour 40 minutes straight through.

Photo credit: Robert Workman (appropriately.)

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