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Sweat by Lynn Nottage at Donmar Warehouse

Martha Plimpton (Cynthia) and Stuart McQuarrie (Stan) in Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse directed by Lynette Linton, designed by Frankie Bradshaw. Photo Johan Persson
Martha Plimpton (Cynthia) and Stuart McQuarrie (Stan) in Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse directed by Lynette Linton, designed by Frankie Bradshaw. Photo Johan Persson.

Decisions made by captains of industry have a significant impact on the livelihoods of many people, and Sweat is not the first show to highlight this. Consider, for instance, the British musical Made in Dagenham, which looked at industrial action taken in 1968 by sewing machinists at both the Ford Motor Company’s Dagenham and Halewood production facilities. In this American play, the unions are also fighting, but in early twenty-first century Pennsylvania, there’s not much that can be done in the end, partly because of the North American Free Trade Agreement, which is blamed (rightly or wrongly: I am not an economist and cannot vouch for the play’s assertions) for Olstead, a major blue-collar employer, shifting some of its operations to Mexico in order to reduce their cost base.

Somewhat bizarrely, the company chooses to retain a presence in the United States after all, for now. The company’s actions may not have been technically illegal as far as US law is concerned, but they are certainly morally dubious – the likes of Tracey (Martha Plimpton), with decades of service, have been let go. In their place are temporary workers who have applied to the company directly (no agencies); most of these happen to be immigrants to America who are content to accept the pay and conditions offered.

This is a contributory factor to considerable racial tension. Lynn Nottage’s script makes this plain in some very direct vocabulary – the ‘N’ word is used with reference to an African-American character within the first few minutes, for instance. Emotions run so high that there’s a reason why the production has a fight director (Kate Waters), and the atmosphere in a bar run by Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) is not that far removed from the more explosive episodes of The Jerry Springer Show (and the bleeper they have on that TV chat show to block out the swearing wouldn’t have gone amiss in this play either).

While the first half was a little sluggish for me, the audience’s patience is rewarded after the interval, by which time there are more events than rumours about events. The script includes very specific dates with regards to when each scene is set, together with the outdoor ambient temperature and events in the news. It is not clear how all these should be portrayed on stage, and this production chooses to use a television set for scenes in the bar to relay such details.

Hard-hitting in more ways than one, the play presents the fears and anxieties of a relatively tight-knit community. Clearly well researched, various perspectives are given their due, and the overall effect is a balanced, nuanced and (seemingly) non-judgemental appraisal of how the United States found itself with Donald J. Trump as its president (though it was written before the 2016 election). It does not suggest any neat and tidy solutions to the problems presented: or does it? The very final moment of the play has Oscar (Sebastian Viveros) helping Stan in a manner so poignant even motormouth Jason (Patrick Gibson) and his friend Chris (Osy Ikhile) are lost for words. The production suggests that help is best given by one another, rather than unions or government. To reference Jerry Springer’s talk show once more, Springer’s sign-off line rings true: “Take care of yourselves, and each other.”

The character development in the play is impressive, and despite a good number of off-stage characters and events, proceedings are remarkably easy to follow. For giving a voice to people not often heard above the weasel words of politicians and business leaders, this play is to be commended. A compassionate and compulsive production.

4 stars

Review by Chris Omaweng

In 2011, Lynn Nottage began spending time with the people of Reading, Pennsylvania: officially one of the poorest cities in the USA. During the following two years, she dug deep into the forgotten heart of middle America, finding a city divided by racial tension and the collapse of industry.

Sweat is the Pulitzer Prize-winning play that Lynn Nottage wrote following her experience.

Her tale of friends pitted against each other by big business and the decline of the American Dream receives its UK premiere at the Donmar, directed by former Donmar Resident Assistant Director Lynette Linton.

Director Lynette Linton
Designer Frankie Bradshaw
Lighting Designer Oliver Fenwick
Sound Designer and Composer George Dennis
Movement Director Polly Bennett
Fight Director Kate Waters
Casting Director Amy Ball CDG

Donmar Warehouse, 41 Earlham St, London WC2H 9LX


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