Studs Terkel, adapted by Stephen Schwartz and Nino Faso
Jack Maple, Rabin Sabi, Christopher Ketner & DEM Productions
Southwark Playhouse

Liam Tamne, Siubhan Harrison, Gillian Bevan, Peter Polycarpou, Krysten Cummings and Dean Chisnall Credit: Robert Workman
Huon Mackley, Izuka Hoyle, and Nicola Espallardo Credit: Robert Workman
Gillian Bevan, Dean Chisnall, Peter Polycarpou, Huon Mackley, Izuka Hoyle, Nicola Espallardo, Liam Tamne, Kerri Notville, Patrick Coulter and Luke Latchman Credit: Robert Workman
Dean Chisnall Credit: Robert Workman

This vibrant musical is a celebration of ordinary people, working men and women, of their work and their aspirations. It encapsulates multiple stories of effort, sometimes frustration and danger but pride too in their achievement. There is no continuous narrative here but its cumulative impact is considerable and in this, its European première, it's delivered with a feeling and conviction that is exhilarating.

We tend to think of verbatim theatre as a relatively recent development, especially verbatim musicals, but this adaptation of Studs Terkel’s Working dates from 1977. His book was a collection of interviews which Terkel subtitled “People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do”. That’s just what they did and here some of what they said is turned into songs by Stephen Schwartz, Mary Rodgers, James Taylor, Micki Grant and Craig Carnelian and Susan Birkenhead. When the show was revived in a new version in 2010, it incorporated new material based on interviews Terkel conducted in 2006-7, including two new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda.

The music seems to grow from the subject. It feels as though its tunes reflect natural speech patterns: they sound completely natural, its harmonies happy, and it’s beautifully sung with a textual clarity that other shows should copy.

One story often leads into another and they are also linked by Fabian Aloise’s lively choreography. There’s steel erector Mike, working 1,000 feet up building New York’s skyscrapers. He calls himself a dying breed, a labourer. There’s Freddy, a lad making fast food deliveries. There’s teacher Rose, proud of her 40 years educating children and lamenting the changes that bring huge class sizes. There are businessmen, telephonists, cleaners, shop workers, a hedge fund manager, truckers, a stonemason, a publicist, a waitress, a receptionist, a housewife, a fireman—even a hooker.

It is very much a company show in which everyone plays several roles but it is full of remarkable cameos. Gillian Bevan stands out as the teacher and adds confident dignity to the waitress.

There’s Dean Chisnall as the fireman, a dog-bothered UPS man and a rapidly rising executive on the golf course (with perfectly cued sound from stage management as his club strikes an imaginary ball), Liam Tamne as the delivery boy, a care worker or the frustration of sticking to the rules as the voice on the end of a helpline, Krysten Cummings as the housewife, a fundraiser and a cleaner hoping her daughter will break the pattern the women in her family have followed.

Siubhan Harrison as one of Rose’s former prize pupils tells how being an air hostess isn’t as glamorous as people think, is a clocking-on factory hand and a nanny looking after children far better than their parents do while Peter Polycarpou, who starts things off as the steel worker, represents the retired as a PR man who moans his job leaves him with nothing tangible to sell on and a fireman whom talks about how he now fills his time.

As the show draws to a close, Polycarpou returns to his first role to touchingly sing about seeing his son grow up and the parental relationship in “Fathers and Sons” then goes on to proudly speak of what he has built, which leads into the show’s final “Something to Point To” celebrating the contribution everyone’s work makes.

There is a young ensemble too, all making their professional debuts. Early on, Patrick Coulter caught the attention with the concentration he brought to performance but there is excellent work too, especially in the dance numbers from Nicola Espallardo, Luke Latchman, Izuka Hoyle, Huon Mackley and Kerri Norville—you would think they were all seasoned performers.

This is a show with its heart in the right place; a delight that seemed especially appropriate to be opening on the eve of a general election for it celebrates all of us.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton