Review: Work Bitch, VAULT Festival

From the start, Work Bitch portrays a sense of urgency. Waitress (Jessica Siân) strides onto the stage with the house lights on, background music playing and the audience still happily chatting away to each other. She has the need for us to hear what she has to say and, as we fall quiet, she begins to tell her story.

After 17 years pulling pints and refilling coffee cups, Waitress knows the hospitality business like the back of her hand. She’s been through it all. Workplace sexism, impossible customer requests, sharing tips and the friends and love interests she makes along the way. What started as a Saturday job in South Africa’s young rainbow nation has, nearly two decades later, turned into her life. Is there perhaps more out there for her than folding napkins and polishing cutlery?

Writer and performer Siân gives shape to a character who blends into her work. Dressed in uniform with a crisp white apron and a pen accessorising her messy bun, there is no question as to what this woman does for a living. Around her, Luke Robson has designed a set that is both plain and notable at the same time, quickly becoming part of Waitress’s story as she moves within it. The tiled floor and dozens of notes with quickly scribbled orders seem to belong to her. This is what she knows. This is it.

However, there are moments where Waitress comes up for air, giving the audience an insight into her dreams, her fears and her regrets. It is these moments which I greatly cherished as they show the intensity and subtle humour in Siân’s performance. Behind the professional and worn-down exterior there is a person who is wondering if she took a wrong left turn and how time can move so quickly.

Work Bitch is very fast-paced, not always for the sake of the narrative. For the first half, we move so rapidly that I don’t know which parts are important for me to pick up on. A web of characters and places seem to spin itself around me and I get caught up in one storyline while Waitress had already bounced onto the other.

Lighting and sound by Jamie Platt and Anna Clock do help with the transitions, giving much-needed guidance in this string of occurrences, but I want to linger in those transitions and in the moments they birth. Particularly the moments where Siân shapes herself into a new character and the lights change to highlight her profile in a different colour are a thing of pure beauty that I want to sink into.

In the end, however, I have the feeling Siân starts taking her time with the script. Cracks start to appear in her smile as personal tragedies and failures begin to tighten around her throat.

Whereas throughout the first half I find myself looking around the audience, the final scene of Work Bitch is one I couldn’t look away from. It is a moment where Blythe Stewart’s direction and Siân’s words weave together seamlessly and I am holding my breath thinking back on it now.

Work Bitch is the play for a generation of individuals working multiple jobs, scrubbing in and dreaming big. A generation waiting and working for something more.

Work Bitch is playing at the Vault Festival until 3 March. For more information and tickets, see the Vault Festival website.