Lynn Nottage’s gritty and emotional drama has been brought to the Donmar Warehouse by former Resident Assistant Director Lynnette Linton and is the perfect antidote to anyone who has had enough of the traditional Christmas fare. Sweat won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama after it’s debut in New York in 2015 and it is easy to see why. The writing is simply outstanding and when combined with excellent performances and skilful production, results in something that is truly extraordinary.
Nottage and her research team, spent significant time interviewing and getting to understand the residents of Reading, Pennsylvania, one of the poorest cities in the USA. She then used this body of real-life evidence to create a story based on two families and their friends, set mainly in their local bar. The drama switches between 2000 and 2008 as the impact of globalisation and the de-industrialisation of the rust-belt starts to bite on this community.
At the beginning of the new Millennium, Cynthia (Clare Perkins) and Tracey (Martha Plimpton) are best friends who have worked on the same production line for more than twenty years. Their two sons Chris (Osy Ikhile) and Jason (Patrick Gibson) have dreams of getting out but have settled for the convenience and good money available to those able to enter the closed shop of the factory. Jessie (Leanne Best) also dreamt of leaving once but that was twenty years ago and now numbs the pain of regret with alcohol. Cynthia’s husband Brucie (Wil Johnson) has been caught up in industrial action at another plant and after being locked out for nearly two years has fallen into a spiral of drink and drugs.
In the bar, the manager Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) had to leave the plant following an accident so has become everyone’s shoulder to cry on and source of sage advice. Young barman Oscar (Sebastian Viveros) just wants to find his way into the plant to provide for his family but will always be seen as an outsider because he is Hispanic. The flash forwards to 2008 lets us know that Chris and Jason have just got out of prison after eight years and are being supported by their probation officer Evan (Sule Rimi).
After Cynthia is promoted to become a supervisor, the friendships start to break and as the plant gets into trouble the Union workforce is locked out and the tension builds. Those locked out struggle to decide where to focus their anger, on the ‘white hats’ in management who made the decision or the non-union immigrant workforce that has been sent in to replace them. The inevitable violence that their anger leads to is no less impactful for being seen coming from the outset.
Nottage’s script is sharp and funny, but full of the emotion that comes from characters that feel real and believable. She has beautifully captured a slice of industrial American life that makes no effort to sanitise or romanticise their experience. Linton ensures no time is wasted but that all the characters get sufficient space to develop and become interesting and worth following. Frankie Bradshaw’s design creates a suitable setting, a rundown looking bar surrounded by rusty girders that fits perfectly with the Donmar’s space, in a way that would not have worked so well in one of the West End’s more decorous theatres. In the background the bar’s TV plays news clips from the era to let us know what passage of time has elapsed since the previous scene.
All of the performances were excellent but three in particular stood out. Plimpton dominates the stage, especially when the anger in her character builds. She is able to spit and hiss her contempt in a way that shows just how vulnerable and inadequate Tracey actually feels. McQuarrie gets many of the funnier lines and his timing is spot on. He delivers the cod-psychological advice from behind the bar with a fantastic sense of weary resignation. Ikhile provides a huge physical presence on stage, seemingly always in motion, but when he draws out his characters emotions, especially in the interviews with his probation officer it is absolutely heart-breaking.
The power and impact of this play should not be underestimated. It tackles the huge issues of class, race, and globalisation but with a pinpoint focus on how this affects a small community. When work is their main identity, both individually and as a place, no one can cope when it is taken away. Whether this makes you angry, upset or both might depend on your political outlook but either way it will most certainly provoke a strong emotional reaction from anyone fortunate enough to get to see it.
Reviewed by Kris Witherington
Photo: Johan Persson
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