Guest reviewer: Ellen Casey
Working is a musical based on the book of the same title by Studs Terkel. It chronicles the varied experiences of the American working world, from waitress to corporate bigwig, delivery boy to socialite. It was updated in 2009 with new songs from Lin-Manuel Miranda – Delivery and A Very Good Day, which benefits it massively – the play can feel dated at times, so the new songs breathe a bit of 21st century life into it. They are easily identifiable because of their energy and language (one of the original songs discussed being a “whiz” at something which was a little bit of an 80s whiplash) and they were enthusiastically taken to by the performers. A Very Good Day in particular touched a chord of real emotion – and made the guest I brought cry.
Musicals are always fun and Working is a back-to-back showcase of the talent of the Royal Academy of Music’s Master’s class. It’s a massive cast, and the formula for choosing who recurred and who had one showstopper felt slightly oblique to us; a performer would bring the house down and then disappear apart from brief appearances in the chorus. Some also fared better than others with the often hefty musical load they were asked to carry – though that might have depended slightly on the genre of the song they were assigned. That said there were notable standouts – the performances of Waitress, Delivery and Just a Housewife were incredible, and examples of a quality I wish the production could have achieved continuously.
A frustrating detail was the stage design – it started out interesting but felt forgotten by the end of the show. The Susie Sainsbury is such a beautiful new theatre that you could almost forget, except for the few slivers of detail at the beginning that leave you wanting more: the delivery boy heelying off stage down a ramp, a wooden partition spun round by actors to represent the claustrophobia of a cubicle, a rampant capitalist putting his feet up on a desk balanced on the backs of two kneeling men… Working is a character-led musical with a lot to say, and I see how it must be tempting to not want to clutter the performances, but it felt like a shame that these kinds of touches didn’t make it all the way through the play.
That said, it was a very fun experience in a beautiful new theatre (so shiny – the seats actually squeaked with newness as we sat down!) – and for a play that ran straight through for almost two hours, especially one that was basically back-to-back songs, I was never bored.
My verdict? There’s a reason this musical was nominated for five Tony Awards, but while this production had moments of greatness, it was ultimately uneven.
Working ran at the Susie Sainsbury Theatre (Royal Academy of Music) from 14-17 June 2018. Tickets for their next show (The Sweet Smell of Success) are available online.