REVIEW: SWEAT (Gielgud Theatre) ★★★★

Set in 2000 against a background of George Bush’s face flickering on screens, booming declarations of economic decline, Sweat is a play which examines industrial disloyalty and the red-hot cinders of resentment and desperation it leaves behind.

Running a bar in Reading, Pennsylvania we meet Stan, a friendly ex-factory worker who had to give up his job (and family legacy) after injuring his leg. Instead, he serves his ex-colleagues drinks, often on him, and increasingly grapples to keep the peace.

It is clear that in this Rust Belt of America, people anchor their identity in occupation. Despite aching feet and bleeding hands, the workers from the local steel tube factory talk about their jobs with passionate affection. This is certainly true for Cynthia (Claire Perkins) and her friends Tracey (Martha Plimpton) and Jessie (Leanne Best), who pile in for a much deserved nightly drink. The women have a rich history and unite in hatred for their faceless managers but ultimate pride in their commitment to the company.

When a promotion opens up and, winning it, Cynthia ditches the dirty overalls for a distinctly contrasting suit, tensions rise and racism blisters the small group of friends and family. The play is bookended by future snapshots of 2008 Chris (Osy Ikhile) and Jason (Patrick Gibson) -having also worked with their mothers, Tracey and Cynthia – angry and broken after losing their jobs to a pay cut of 60%.

The play is born out of twice Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage’s two years extensive research. Nottage visited Reading, PA and explored the US’s ruthless pursuit to replace loyal workers with quick-fix machines and cheaper labour. And, of course, as we mimic America more and more every year, this trend is the same for the UK. Company loyalty becomes scarcer, generational honour, unheard of. And as technology and population grows, the atmosphere is pungent with the feeling that things can only get worse.

Frankie Bradshaw’s production is stunning and the actors heartbreakingly proud as they spiral into poverty. The three leading women in particular, navigate the story with electric chemistry and searingly raw ferocity.

However, although the writing is fearsome, there are moments when it feels overwritten; proposing arguments before they happen and generally not allowing enough room for the heart-rendering intimacy that the few silent moments bring. The real meat of the play is at the end where tensions reach fever-pitch and lives are forever changed.

As a classic boiling-pot drama, Sweat paints an all too familiar picture of how real livelihoods are crumbled by heartless corporations. The play uses history as a warning of repetition, but will the UK listen? Or will wealth (T)rump humility forever?

Reviewed by Nicole Darvill-Batten
Photo: Johan Persson


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