Thursday, 12 September 2019

12/09/19: Working: A Musical, Upstairs at the Gatehouse, Highgate

Studs Terkel (1912–2008) was a highly respected American writer and broadcaster who published several collections of oral histories. His conversations with “ordinary people” revealed profound social, economic and personal truths about the times. Adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso, this show brings to life the author’s 1974 book, Working, with spoken narratives and songs that illuminate gritty accounts of trying to earn a living in the USA.

The cast of eight actor/singers play multiple parts across professions as diverse as truck driver, nanny, hedge fund manager, prostitute, stone mason and flight attendant. Their narratives range from funny or quirky (a UPS delivery man startling attractive women for his own entertainment) to desperately sad (a woman enduring mind-numbing monotony on a factory assembly line). Cleverly, the script both documents a lost way of life and – bravely building upon Terkel’s source material – offers subtle updates to more recent working scenarios by utilising innovations such as e-mail and mobile phones. At the centre of these varied tales are the same recurring questions. How much should your job define you? What does it mean to spend so much of your existence in employment? And do we have a right to expect our work to be satisfactory and meaningful?

The stage set is an ingenious split-level scaffold structure resembling part of a construction site. This is compartmentalised to allow each actor their own designated area within it. The brilliant direction by Amanda Noar allows for these spaces to be suddenly spotlit or thrown into darkness, emphasising parallels or curious juxtapositions between workers as their confessions and experiences begin to dovetail.

A four-piece band led by musical director Jamie Noar embrace a diverse range of styles and moods, from big, brassy anthems to restrained, low-key heartbreakers. The stand-out moments are numerous, but the most memorable include “Just a Housewife” sung by Lara Beth-Sas and “It’s an Art” performed by Hannah Cheetham as a proud waitress determined to recognise the value in her role.

In parts, it’s hugely emotional – particularly when the full ensemble unite to complement each other’s stories and songs. You really feel you’ve had an insight into other people’s lives. Terkel’s gift was to show sufficient empathy for his interview subjects to bring out the very best in them. It’s a great credit to this production that it does the same.

ORIGINALLY REVIEWED FOR SPY IN THE STALLS.

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