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The Theatreguide.London Review

Working
Southwark Playhouse  Summer 2017

This amiable little musical, virtually a textbook example of a fringe or off-off-Broadway show, achieves its modest aims to be entertaining and occasionally thoughtful, without ever really transcending the genre or being particularly memorable. 

Studs Terkel was a Chicago broadcaster and radio chat show host whose avocation was interviewing ordinary people, collecting their stories in a series of books on memories of the Great Depression, World War II and, in 1974, day-to-day working lives.

Broadway songwriter Stephen Schwartz, with Nina Faso, adapted selections from the Working book into a musical in 1978, with songs by Schwartz and others. The musical has been revised and added to several times since then, this latest version incorporating new interviews and songs. 

A cast of twelve, playing as many as a half-dozen roles each, present the voices of real-life waitresses, secretaries, teachers, construction workers, truck drivers, executives and the like, in sound bites ranging from single sentences to extended monologues and songs. 

The tone is generally respectful and only occasionally humorous or satiric, as when a socialite's self-serving account of hosting charity events is juxtaposed to a whore's matter-of-fact story, or in the side-by-side monologues of a working-class lad and a more privileged kid assuming a future of college, secure profession, suburban home and suitable wife.

Terkel's signature mode was to ask one question and then shut up, letting his subjects talk until they went places they hadn't expected to, and a schoolteacher's nostalgia for the days when pupils were well-behaved approaches the border of racism. 

More typical are the song and monologue of the construction worker who takes pride in seeing every home he helps build, the receptionist bemoaning the way everyone assumes she's a brainless bimbo, and the cleaning woman determined that her daughter will be the first woman in the family to break out of menial work.

As you might expect from a range of separate composers, the songs are in a wide variety of styles. Stephen Schwartz himself contributes some Broadway razzmatazz in a waitress's account of how she gets through the day by turning every encounter with a customer into a theatrical event, and a more sedate and quietly touching song in which a working man's hope that his son will rise above him makes him more appreciative of his own father's sacrifices for him. 

There's a country music flavour and energy to James Taylor's songs for an exhausted assembly-line worker and a truck driver, and songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Craig Carnelia, Micki Grant and others. 

As is almost inevitable in a collage show like this, a very few of the pieces seem to have been included more for their inherent quality than their relevance to the central theme, notably the father-and-son song and a retired man's modest account of the small events that fill up his days. 

An energetic, largely young cast – half are making their professional debuts – is led by Gillian Bevan, Peter Polycarpou and Krysten Cummings with fluid direction by Luke Sheppard.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Working - Southwark Playhouse 2017