Stephen Schwartz

Review: Working ★★★★ – America’s workers find their voice in a musical that really works

“All gone to look for America” sang Simon and Garfunkel in 1968. In 1974 oral historian and broadcaster Studs Terkel found America by conducting a series of free-form interviews with so-called ‘ordinary’ people – from labourers to teachers – about their working lives. Uninterrupted by their interviewer, they spoke freely about the meaning they found in their work – and its part in the meaning of their lives. The resulting book is a bestseller still.

In 1975, composer/lyricist Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Wicked) – collaborating with Nina Faso and other composers, including Mary Rodgers, daughter of Richard – began work on a verbatim musical (A Chorus Line opened that year) that gave a new voice to these inhabitants of the world of work. Working has continued to develop, taking in hi-tech, low-input changes in the working world. The latest version, with new songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda and contributions from writer/director Gordon Greenberg, gets its European premiere in this glowing, compassionate production.

Director Luke Sheppard’s brilliant idea is to recruit, alongside his six seasoned workers (three men, three women), four hugely promising newbies out of drama school (Patrick Coulter, Nicola Espallardo, Izuka Houle and Luke Latchman) to sit at their feet, listening and learning from the stories of the different employees they play – when they’re not joining in chorus numbers and high-energy routines, as choreographed by Fabian Aloise. So designer Jean Chan’s grungy workplace set teems with figures she dresses in 50 shades of iconic denim.

There is so much light and shade in this beautifully calibrated show. The upbeat numbers are balanced by more contemplative vignettes. The six leads cover a useful age range. The most senior, Peter Polycarpou, brings his gravitas to Schwartz’s poignant Fathers and Sons, taking us into the emotional hinterland of this working man, his relationship with his son mirroring his own with his father. Schwartz drew on his own experience and it shows.

Equally telling is Miranda’s A Very Good Day: two immigrant workers, a carer and a nanny, sing in tender counterpoint about their charges, one at each end of life, perfectly conjured by Liam Tamne and Siubhan Harrison. Gillian Bevan charts stoical Rose Hoffman’s 40 years of teaching explaining Nobody Tells Me How (Mary Rodgers and Susan Birkenhead): “When my parents came over I didn’t learn Jewish as a first language.” Dean Chisnall touches as gun-using policeman turned life-saving fireman and Krysten Cummings complete this perfect line up. A stunning finale, Carnelia’s Something to Point To, should give everyone pause to look up at a building or around their own workplace and give respect to the workforce who built it. These are the men and women whom Trump claims to represent. Working works perfectly to give them a proud and genuine voice.

By Judi Herman

Photos by Robert Workman

Working runs until Saturday 8 July. 7.30pm (Mon-Fri), 3pm (Sat only). £25, £20 concs. Southwark Playhouse, SE1 6BD. www.southwarkplayhouse.co.uk

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