It takes an incredibly bold person to use the inscription over the German concentration camps (‘Arbeit Macht Frei’ in the original German) as the name of their play.
And the team behind Work Makes You Free are bold. Taking many of the issues surrounding us today both politically and as a society, this is a current, relevant, commentary on many of the aspects of life we will see every day. From the existential crises of some of us who are in jobs to survive, often at the expense of our true dreams, down to the entrance sequence that so simply but accurately portrays the trials of getting to work on the tube and along the busy city streets, Work Makes You Free touches the full spectrum of working life in the modern age.
This darkly humorous production follows four seemingly unconnected people from very different walks of life, some predictably happier in their work than others. The performance itself takes the form of four intertwined monologues, and all four performers generally have a part to play in each of the ‘scenes’, with typically two of the four performers taking a greater share of the stage at a time.
And there are ‘scenes’ in a sense; separated with short bursts of music. However, the production uses so little scenery that these differences are presented through staging alone and it’s through the placement of the performers and dominance of one pair of characters over the other that we are given an indication of this. It’s an unusual approach and its simplicity is its success, I feel, as it becomes a recurring and recognizable element of the show that helps to maintain the structure of the performance and counterpoints the way that at times the ‘fourth wall’ is, (frequently to humorous effect), broken.
Visually, all four performers (Nicholas Stafford, Emily Bates, Miranda Evans and Laura Pieters) are engaging and animated and the passion with which they perform can excuse the odd tripped-over line. Each of them offers a strong, powerful performance and deals with humour and tragedy in turn with an equal commitment to their own defined, recognizable character.
And the lack of scenery doesn’t mean lack of visual effects. Work Makes You Free is one of the more challenging productions for the technical and lighting team that I’ve seen at this level. As each performer begins speaking, the light shifts to bring them into central focus and when the interweaving at times is on an almost line by line basis, it can be understood perhaps why there were a few moments where this was less smoothly done than it was designed to be. A shame, as this did detract a little from the performance overall.
And overall this is a high quality, engaging production that covers a lot of ground in a short time without feeling rushed. It’s fair to say that there’s both character and plot development beyond what I was anticipating and while there is a fairly obvious political leaning to the left, the story is moralistic and thought-provoking beyond merely political.
I was left with the feeling that this is a new production and it may have been released just a little too soon but there are clear hallmarks of quality and there’s no doubt that this is a very good production, worth seeing. I’d be interested to see how it changes over the course of its run at Vaults Festival and beyond.
Review by Damien Russell
Adam is absolutely loving being Employment Minister, singer-songwriter Kirsty cries in the shower every morning before heading off to work at the Job Centre, struggling actress Willow must toil unpaid in a pound shop or lose her benefits, and banker Jane is disgusted by the sight of closed curtains as she leaves for Canary Wharf every morning.
Michael Ross’s biting satire delivers a piece very much for our times, reflecting on the dignity – and many indignities – of labour. It explores how some people are defined by their job, whilst for others, it’s the main obstacle to becoming who they truly are. It is a funny, smart and ingenious examination of what work means in Twenty-First Century Britain.
DIRECTED BY James McKendrick
ADAM – Nicholas Stafford
JANE – Emily Bates
KIRSTY – Miranda Evans
WILLOW – Laura Pieters
21 — 25 Feb 2018