With the increasing need to fill seats in an auditorium, it is not often that an amateur company can afford to go out on a limb and stage a little-known musical. Bravo then to Backstreet Theatre Company for bucking the trend this week at the Prince of Wales Theatre Cannock.
Working is one of those shows which won countless awards and drew critical acclaim when first staged across the pond on Broadway, but without a hit song to grab mass attention it failed to make a lasting impression, except amongst perhaps the most ardent of musical theatre fans. With music from big Broadway names including Stephen Schwartz (Wicked, Godspell) and Lin Manuel-Miranda (whose latest show Hamilton is currently the hottest ticket in New York), the show explores the working lives of every-day people; from cleaners to shopkeepers, firemen to craftsmen, housewives to business tycoons. A series of musical numbers interspersed with monologues creates a series of vignettes in place of a straight storyline, which give just a glimpse into the world and thoughts of each individual.
Michele Windsor’s clever staging sets out this disjointed structure from the offset, with the audience introduced to a stage full of people from all walks of life. Combined with a specially-commissioned set, designed to great effect by Neil & Michele Sidaway, the staging and choreography brings the various aspects of the scene to life, moving seamlessly from school classroom to building site to call centre. My only criticism of the technical aspect were the rolling lights which almost blinded the audience at the end of each number - a minor note in what was technically a well-staged production; yet a key problem which saw many of the audience members around me looking away from the stage rather than being able to view the final bars of each routine.
The energy and teamwork across the cast is palpable, particularly in the musical numbers, which are each delivered with great attack and assuredness. The variety of the musical numbers means this show is the perfect vehicle for showing off the range of vocal talent in the company with strong solo performances across the board, in particular from Faye Watson, Sara Hilditch, Diana Whylie, Jack Knight and Gayle Allen (to mention but a few).
This is truly an ensemble piece with the large cast all playing numerous roles and the majority switching from fronting a number or monologue to providing chorus support throughout. Everyone on stage deserves credit for the contribution that they bring to the show. The slickness of the production and the attention to detail in the characters, which stood out whether at the front of the stage or hidden amongst a group of performers, is testament to this.
In the monologue sections, Faye Meacham and Jordan Davis also stood out for their natural, believable approach to their characters. Delivering a monologue is perhaps the most exposing challenge onstage to an actor – more so than singing a solo where at least you have a band to back you. With a monologue, every little action and sound produced is scrutinised by the audience so it is essential that every word can be heard, and any movement made is both believable and necessary. On opening night there were a number of lines that got lost in the cavernous space at the Prince of Wales, just from lack of diction or performers racing through the script, but hopefully this is something that can settle down through the run.
If you are only ever looking for a traditional plot-based musical and tunes you can hum along to as you leave the theatre, then this may not be the show for you. Yet, for musical theatre afficianados and anyone wishing to support local theatre that dares to be different, Backstreet’s production offers a rare chance to see this under-performed show.
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