Theatre Review | Working: Work in capitalism classic re-energised

By Ruby Fischer
Southwark Playhouse

On one level, Working presents a series of poetic musical moments, which reveal the working lives of ordinary men and women in the US. On another level, it is about much larger questions: about identity, ambition, hope and what it means to be a cog in the wheel. It is at once a chilling reflection of our value structures and also a heartwarming homage to human resilience and determination when simply making it through the day becomes a herculean feat.

The 1978 musical is based on Stud Terkel’s revelatory text in which he interviews over a hundred working Americans, from gravediggers to piano tuners, engaging them in conversations which bring to light not only the daily mechanics of life in the workforce, but also broader existential questions about the quest for meaning in the mechanism.

In Schwartz and Faso’s vision, we are presented with such stories as a teacher struggling to keep up with the times, a waitress who treats every shift like a cabaret performance and a housewife whose work “only matters to three people.”

Interwoven into the many portraits is the question of “real” work, and this is where the somewhat historically dated material of Terkel’s text shines with arresting relevance:in an age which relies on an increasingly embittered and disillusioned workforce, what does it mean “to say a man is just a labourer”?

Working welcomes six debut performances from recent drama school graduates, who act as witnesses, listeners and learners in addition to their explosive contribution as singers and dancers in their own right.

The main roles are entrusted to a professional cast whose experience gives the piece its gravitas. Gillian Bevan is electrifying as Delores Dante and Peter Polycarpou’s rendition of Fathers and Sons gives a deeply moving sense of the palpable passage of time.

Dean Chisnall and Krysten Cummings both give vibrant, muscular performances while Siubhan Harrison and Liam Tamne lend an elegance to the touching story of two migrant carers. Isaac McCullough’s band is superb.

Stephen Schwartz and Nina Faso have, in collaboration with other extraordinary creatives, put together a piece which asks the simple question: What do you do? The question which follows is altogether more radical: Why?


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