Review: Working, Southwark Playhouse

I came into the European premiere of the musical Working at the Southwark Playhouse with a very specific set of associations. While the UK has not previously encountered this 1978 musical, culled from social historian Studs Terkel’s 1974 encyclopedic book of interviews with Americans of just about every profession, I actually performed in a school production of the show in New York over a decade ago in a cast of 13- and 14-year-olds. And while I remembered the score’s infinite variety (the composers range from Broadway stalwart Stephen Schwartz to folk rock legend James Taylor), I’d never quite realized how eloquently these stories are told or how stirring these vignettes can be. As audiences can usually expect from the Southwark Playhouse, one of London’s finest off-West End venues, director Luke Sheppard offers a polished, persuasive rendering of this diamond-in-the-rough musical, long overdue on this side of the Atlantic.

Sure, Working, originally adapted into a script by Schwartz and Nina Faso (with re-shaping in this version by Gordon Greenberg), will always be a bit rough around the edges. In the spirit of the interview collection that inspired it, there’s no plot or chronology. One by one, American workers step forward: the mason, the teacher, the hooker, the housewife, each offering a sliver of their stories, either in songs inspired by the interviews or in monologues taken verbatim from them. Not every tale will resonate with every audience member: for example, I remain unconvinced by the wearingly zesty waitress number, “It’s An Art” (here performed by Gillian Bevan). That said, this production effectively leans into some particular discomforts (like a racist schoolteacher, also Bevan, much better as teacher than waitress) and the principal cast play their varied roles sharply enough to maintain the momentum and the audience’s attention.

Krysten Cummings, Siubhan Harrison, and Peter Polycarpou stand out for their versatility and nuanced characterisations. Cummings moves seamlessly from self-doubting housewife to unrepentant hooker in back-to-back scenes, but she’s at her best in “Cleanin’ Women” (composed by Micki Grant), a tribute to the mothers who do menial labour to make better lives for their daughters. Harrison’s array of accents impresses, and she’s especially expressive in Taylor’s masterful “Millwork,” a heartbreaking ballad from the assembly line. Perhaps it’s the wonderful Polycarpou, though, who most embodies the show’s heart: he gets the show’s two best and most bittersweet numbers, “Joe,” the devastating soliloquy of a widowed retiree (a song by Craig Carnelia), and “Fathers and Sons,” Schwartz’s soul-searching reflection on fatherhood and heroes.

I doubt that it’s a coincidence that the musical’s strongest moments come from characters that aren’t presenting their work at formal jobs. Both this show – and Terkel’s research – ultimately invest most deeply not in the details of working life but in how people define themselves, how they want to be seen and remembered, and the choices that they make to ensure that they will leave a legacy behind.

To a large extent, Working deals with the painful regret that accompanies growing older, but Sheppard has cleverly manipulated the cast size to include six young actors making their professional debuts alongside the six established performers who deliver the monologues and sing the solos. These newcomers not only skillfully provide vocal backup and execute Fabian Aloise’s dynamic choreography throughout, but, wielding iPhones as recording devices as if they’re continuing to carry out Terkel’s sociological legacy, they also guide the audience through the listening process.

And in this story that’s fundamentally about listening to new voices, it seems appropriate that this recent revision of Working should include two fresh songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda (In the Heights and Hamilton), “Delivery,” which sounds quite a bit like the score of In the Heights, and “A Very Good Day,” a moving duet about professional eldercare, childcare, and sacrifice. Miranda’s songs slide comfortably into the score, adding a contemporary shimmer, even if they’re less successful than some of the original songs at swiftly establishing character.

The whole score receives the royal treatment in the capable hands of music director Isaac McCullough (with useful, varied sound by Tom Marshall), and the whole design (Gabriella Slade’s flexible costumes, Jean Chan’s simple, adjustable set, and Nic Farman’s resourceful lighting) provides the visual diversity necessary to keep an episodic revue like this one alive.

Whether in the monologues – the real words of real people – or in the songs that grow out of them, it’s remarkable to hear these crystalline examples of our shared humanity. It’s a finely staged, quite entertaining musical, yes, but above all else, Working serves as a valuable lesson in the art of listening.

Working is playing at the Southwark Playhouse until July 8.

Photo: Robert Workman

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