December, 1997. Princess Diana is dead. The Spice Girls are four months away from going Geri-less. The employees of travel agency Go Away gather for their end-of-year party, unaware that the proverbial is about to hit the fan: the company’s finances are a mess, and boss Linda (Jodie Rimmer) is going to have to close it down.
With that bomb hanging overhead, the long-simmering tensions between Linda, and her employees Karen (Brynley Stent), Aroha (Kura Forrester) and Gary (Byron Coll) come to the boil…
An underrated part of watching a live performance is picking the right seat. If it is a small space, I generally try to sit in the front row. If it is a larger venue I aim for the middle so I get a good view of the stage. With Work Do, I ended up wedged in on the end of the right side of the theatre.
The Basement’s main stage is very shallow and wide, like a corridor. Between the stage set (a series of office tables in a row) and a row of small coffee tables for audience members brave enough to be close to the action, the theatre space was even smaller than usual.
It’s a testament to how funny Work Do is that it does not matter.
Written by Alice Snedden and Rose Matafeo, and directed by Leon Wadham, the show moves like a freight train, with almost no let-up between set-ups and pay-offs.
The primary reason the show works is that the characters feel motivated by real pain. This is not to say that the show is a bummer (look at the poster). Christmas has always been a good vehicle for redemption stories (think of everything from A Christmas Carol to Die Hard), and Work Do works in a similar way: Linda has made a mistake, and now she has an opportunity to either rectify it, or be a Scrooge.
The cast are uniformly excellent – Rimmer provides the shaky foundation as Linda, disguising deep self-loathing with the thinnest veneer of good cheer.
Brynley Stent plays Karen, a closeted woman who is too afraid to really express how she feels, acting like a locked-down control freak. Her inability/unwillingness to read the room is a joy – Karen careens through the tender egos of her colleagues like a Panzer in a cornfield.
In a smaller role, she also plays Linda’s son, Lachlan – a wonderfully one-note sulk in human form.
As the ostensible straight man, Byron Coll plays Gary, a level-headed employee who Linda sees alternatively as her ‘gay friend’ and a rival for control of the business.
Adding to this gasoline fire-waiting-to-happen is Kura Forrester. Playing Aroha, a relative innocent who wants to get her freak on but has no one to freak with. Forrester gives Aroha a naivete and sense of comic desperation that is very funny, without feeling mean-spirited.
She gets to go in a completely different direction with a secondary performance, as Bernice, a woman who works next door and has a crush on Karen. While Aroha humps it to 11, Forrester’s Bernice feels relatively earthbound, an ordinary person trying to figure out if the object of her attraction shares her feelings. It’s simultaneously the warmest and – thanks to Stent’s tone-deafness – the weirdest part of the whole show.
In the role of a local DJ, [INSERT CELEBRITY] acts as a colour commentator. At first, their role feels distinct from the action, acting as a fun bridge between setpieces. Once the characters from the party start calling in, [INSERT CELEBRITY] is dropped in the deep end as their scripted bits are no match for our heroes’ personal demons.
A chamber piece of clashing egos, libidos and 90s pop hits, Work Do is the perfect send-off to the year, and a fine way to celebrate the annual Basement Christmas show’s 10th anniversary.
Work Do plays Basement Theatre until 21 December.