Review: “Musically this show is an absolute gem” ★★★★ Working, Southwark Playhouse

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Studs Terkel’s 1974 book entitled Working: People Talk About What They Do All Day and How They Feel About What They Do is on the reading list of many drama colleges.

Nina Faso and Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) first made the character study -which provides a fascinating insight into the lives of normal working citizens of America through a series of interviews – into a musical in 1977. Although it received critical acclaim and a number of revivals in the US, the production at Southwark Playhouse marks its European premiere.

In setting the consultations to music, Schwartz’s masterstroke has resulted in a further humanization of the subjects, with them laying bare their souls for all to see. With additional interpretations from updated interviews, provided by Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda, musically this show is an absolute gem.

Creating a musical with no continuous narrative is always a bit of a gamble however, and the pace must be maintained to ensure you don’t lose your audience. The lack of connectivity of the characters within Working, somehow makes the piece feel all the more important, as it reflects the feeling of disconnection to society, which ordinary working class people often feel.

It also helps when the cast is absolutely top-notch and all of the leads within this production showcase an outstanding ability to switch from comedy to tragedy within seconds.

Liam Tamne shows his immense versatility; having the audience roaring with laughter one moment and in floods of tears the next. He is trusted to perform the two fabulous new songs by Lin-Manuel Miranda, with a hilarious rendition of “Delivery” and an utterly glorious duet with Siubhan Harrison called “A Very Good Day”, which is the musical highlight of the show.

Peter Polycarpou gives an acting masterclass with a tremendously touching depiction of a number of more senior members of society, while Gillian Bevan extracts every ounce of comedy from the book, particularly when portraying a long-suffering school teacher.

Jean Chan’s set design is a tribute to the fact that Southwark Playhouse is built on an old car manufacturing site–with grimy floor tiles and a dingy back office and the oily residue in the seams of all of the costumes by Gabriella Slade, further adds to the celebration of the London mechanics of yesteryear.

It also feels very apt that six young performers are being given their first bite at the professional cherry in this production; mixing a youthful wide-eyed ensemble with a seasoned cast of professionals is a nice touch and gives further depth to the message behind the show.

Working at Southwark Playhouse until 8 July.


Siubhan Harrison talks to us about ‘Working’ at Southwark Playhouse

A production, which boasts music by two legendary composers, Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) and Lin-Manuel Miranda (Hamilton, In the Heights), is the stuff of musical theatre dreams. Mix in a stellar cast and you’ve got a recipe for a hit show on your hands, writes Nicky Sweetland.

If you venture down to Southwark Playhouse to see a musical entitled Working over the next few weeks, you’ll not only get both of those elements, but also a fascinating character study, which has been enthralling audiences across the Atlantic for many years.

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The South London venue is hosting the European premiere of the show, which is based on a book by Studs Terkel and features a collection of interviews of the American workforce.

A cast of West End stars has been gathered to present the groundbreaking musical to London audiences for the first time this month. Peter Polycarpou (Miss Siagon, Les Misérables) Gillian Bevan (Billy Elliot, Holby City) and Liam Tamne (The Phantom of the Opera, Rocky Horror Show) will all play multiple roles alongside Siubhan Harrison, who took some time off from rehearsals to tell us about the characters she will portray.

“Everyone plays at least four parts, which is wonderful for an actor” Siubhan explained, “I play a mill worker, an air hostess, a secretary and a nanny. He [Studs Terkel] tried to steer away from the council led jobs and focus more on the unsung members of society, so there’s a real voice of America about it.”

First performed in 1977 in Chicago, Working has enjoyed a number of Broadway runs and due to the nature of the piece, has been revised many times to ensure it is able to reflect the society we now live in, while maintaining historical significance, something which is being reflected with the London production.

Siubhan tells me, “Southwark Playhouse is built on an old car-manufacturing site so we are honouring that with the staging.”

In 2008, Schwartz updated the musical again for a hugely acclaimed Off-Broadway run, drafting in Hamilton creator Lin-Manuel Miranda to write some new songs and Siubhan tells me, “He’s [Miranda’s] written two numbers. One’s called ‘Delivery’, which is about a fast food worker and has got a real Spanish ‘poppy’ feel. It’s the one that’s been going around in our heads because it’s harmonically so complicated, but it’s phenomenal. He’s also written a beautiful duet, which a Spanish care worker and a Filipino nanny sing called ‘A Very Good Day’, which is one of the most beautiful songs I’ve ever heard.”

It’s a mixture of old and new within the cast too, as a group of young performers has been given the opportunity to make their professional debuts as part of the show. The musical’s creative team auditioned over 130 drama school students and aspiring young performers, discovering some of the most exciting upcoming musical theatre talent.

“It’s amazing because a piece that was originally written in the 70s is being updated because we’ve got this voice of a new generation.”

Siubhan was last seen on the London stage in the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Guys and Dolls, which received rave reviews when it transferred first to the Savoy Theatre and then the Phoenix Theatre. The show went through a number of cast changes and latterly featured Hollywood star Rebel Wilson as Miss Adelaide.

Siubhan was the one of the only lead cast members who remained throughout the London runs, reveling in the challenge that performing with different costars brought and said, “It was amazing having the luxury of having things change all the time. Every time someone different came in they brought something different with them, so every scene was slightly different from when you’d done it before.”

The talented triple threat performer admits she is also in awe of her current colleagues and is sure the production of Working at Southwark Playhouse will bring something different to audiences.

“The musical will absolutely blow your mind. There are so many different styles and so many beautiful songs. You’ll come away feeling so moved and so inspired. I think it’s something that everyone should see.”

Working opens at Southwark Playhouse on Wednesday 7 June and runs until 8 July. 

Photos by Robert Workman


West End star Siubhan Harrison takes our Sugar Rush Quiz

Siubhan Harrison has become well-known to West End audiences over the last few years. After playing Lorene in Tim Rice’s From Here to Eternity opposite Darius Campbell at the Shaftesbury Theatre, the versatile performer went on to score further success as Sarah Brown in the Chichester Festival Theatre production of Guys and Dolls. The show transferred to first the Savoy and then the Phoenix Theatre becoming a favourite with both critics and theatregoers alike.

Siubhan Harrison will star in Working at Southwark Playhouse, which opens next month. Photo by Darren Bell

Siubhan is currently in rehearsals for the European Premiere of Working at Southwark Playhouse and took some time off to take our Sugar Rush Quiz.

What are you currently working on?

I’m currently working on Working, which is a Stephen Schwartz musical based on Studs Terkel’s book called ‘Working’.

What is the one thing that has helped you to become successful? 

Hard work

What is your favourite Book?

I’ve got a couple. One is ‘The Unbearable Lightness of Being’ by Milan Kundera. Huruki Murakami is my other favourite writer, but I couldn’t pick one.

What are you currently watching on TV? 

The Walking Dead. I’ve become obsessed by it and I’ve inhaled four series in the last two weeks.

Would you choose the cinema, theatre or a restaurant for a night out? 

I’d really love to do a combination. It’s got to involve food because I’m a massive foodie and a cook, but I do love a night at the theatre or cinema. All three?

What’s your favourite sweet? 

Fizzy sweets

What did you want to be when you were a child? 

I pretended that I wanted to be a pharmacist to keep my parents happy.

What was the naughtiest thing you did when you were a child? 

I threw a pencil at my sister’s head and left a dent in it! 

What is your proudest achievement to date? 

I’ve had some lovely ones. I did a new musical a couple of years ago called From Here to Eternity and I also sang at the Royal Festival Hall in A Life of Song by Tim Rice, which my parents came to. It’s a venue that I’ve always loved because I went to see Ernest Read concerts there when I was a kid and it was amazing to sing on that stage.

What’s next? 

Oh gosh I don’t know, which is part of the joy of being an actor. You never know what’s going to happen.

Working runs at Southwark Playhouse from 2 June until 8 July


Nicky’s Showbiz Diary: Keep Moving Forward

What is it with some people? You know the ones; those people (sadly usually women) who have to blow out your candle to try to make theirs burn brighter. Most of the time, toxic beings don’t get a look in with me, but every now and then, when things are already a bit tough; one manages to get under my armour.

I feel ashamed to say that at the start of the week a particularly venomous viper, spent what felt like an eternity, trying to convince me that I’m quite rubbish and for a while (about 24 hours) I believed her.

Being tough and learning the reasons behind people’s decisions to be unpleasant, are all very well, but sometimes it just plain hurts.

Anyway, I picked myself up, brushed myself off and ended up having an awesome week.

After accepting a bit of freelance work for another theatrical website (it is always so nice to be asked and really gives you a sense that you are heading in the right direction) I popped along to my first proper rehearsal of Spamalot. There’s nothing quite like belting out some cheery tunes to lift the spirits and this Monty Python inspired show is full of them.

With an added spring in my step I embarked on my working week with renewed vigor and after a fantastic trip to Bristol to see Kerry Ellis and co in Wonderland felt even better. The show, which is about a 40-year old single parent that is dealing with a catalogue of disasters (I know! Spooky right?), is a lovely positive way to spend an evening, with some great music and stunning performances. In fact, the Cheshire Cat even says, “Don’t look down. Stand up straight. Be decisive – never hesitate. If you’re lost, just keep moving forward”, which felt pertinent.

I then journeyed up to London and bumped into one of the cast members of The Girls, Sophie Louise Dann, who joined me for quick cuppa. I then interviewed Sheila Atim, who is currently leading the cast of Babbettes Feast at Print Room at the Coronet, before I popped into the Southwark News office to agree on an exciting new writing opportunity. I’m going to be working on the Greenwich Weekender and after meeting the team, I know it’s going to be a really enjoyable new venture.

I also went along to the open auditions of Cilla – The Musical and had a chat to some of the auditionees along with the writer Jeoff Pope and Cilla’s son Robert Willis.

I had a coffee with the lovely Siubhan Harrison who after starring alongside Rebel Wilson in Guys and Dolls is looking forward to getting back to the London stage and will be leading the cast at Southwark Playhouse in Steven Schwartz’s Working.

One thing I’ve learned from this week is that as long as I stay true to myself I can succeed. Yes, they’ll be plenty of rubbish people along the way who are determined to“Rain on my Parade” but nobody “Is ever gonna bring me down!” (I’m sorry for the shameless musical theatre quotes!).

Next week I’m doing a bit of a theatrical marathon and I’m starting off by going to see the Play That Goes Wrong at Exeter Northcott Theatre. I’m then really excited to be watching The Addams Family in Wimbledon, followed by Richard III at the Arcola Theatre, Ballroom at the Waterloo East Theatre and then Judy! at the Arts Theatre. I’m also popping over to Southampton to catch Samantha Barks’ solo concert before I trot along to Cadogan Hall to listen to a concert version of The Colour Purple.

Theatre cures all! Fact!

You can see all of my reviews and interviews on my website listen to me every week on BBC Radio Kent or follow me on Twitter for regular updates @NickySweetland