Thursday, 10 January 2019

Theatre review: Sweat

On past experience, a play having won the Pulitzer isn’t much of a guarantee that I’m going to like it, if anything the opposite; identifying a hot-button topic to write about often seems to be enough to win regardless of execution. Lynn Nottage is the first woman to have won the theatre prize twice, and the Donald and Margot Warehouse gets the UK premiere of the latest, Sweat. Nottage certainly identified her hot-button topic early: She started research in 2011, for a play which in part feels like an explanation for why parts of America were so vulnerable to the rise of Trump. The good news is that, in Lynette Linton’s production, the execution lives up to the idea. Nottage was inspired by the statistic that Reading, Pennsylvania, a relatively comfortable industrial city in the 20th century, was now the poorest place in America. The shift came when the textile mill that was the area’s primary employer significantly downsized and outsourced its work, leaving people who’d always felt comfortable in their job security suddenly unemployed.

Mostly set in 2000 in a bar popular with the mill workers, Tracey (Martha Plimpton,) Cynthia (Clare Perkins) and Jessie (Leanne Best) have been working in the mill since they left school, and often meet at the bar after their shifts.

All three come from families that have been working there since the 1920s, and feel a job there is their birthright, but tensions arrive when, for the first time, it’s announced someone from the factory floor will be promoted to supervisor. Cynthia gets the job, and where race never appeared to have been a factor in their relationship before, Tracey starts to believe she only missed out because of positive discrimination. But Cynthia may have been set up as a fall guy, as management have a plan to blackmail the workers into renegotiating their contracts for a 60% pay cut and the loss of their benefits, with the threat of moving the business to Mexico if they don’t comply. Confident in the power of their union the workers strike, but find themselves out in the cold.

The story is framed by scenes in 2008, when Tracey and Cynthia’s respective sons Jason (Patrick Gibson) and Chris (Osy Ikhile) have been released from prison, and shows how far things have degenerated for the town in the intervening years, but much of the play is concerned with showing how much the people and their identity are tied up with the mill; even barman Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) is a former worker there who had to move on after an industrial accident, and that connection is part of the reason everyone keeps going back there. But this feeling of being in a club is also used to exclude people, and the local Hispanic community have generally been unable to get the best jobs, the others rationalising that they’re not entitled to them because their fathers and grandfathers didn’t work at the mill.

One thing Sweat is good at showing subtly is how skilled politicians and corporations are at making people turn their anger on each other instead of those causing them pain, from Cynthia taking the heat for a decision management had already made, to bar worker Oscar (Sebastian Viveros) being called a scab for taking a factory job during the strike. The others expect his loyalty despite years of blocking him, and it starts to look like this may erupt into the event that sent Jason and Chris to prison, sending the former into the arms of white supremacists. So there’s an inevitable bleakness hanging over everything, but Nottage’s writing and Lynton’s production keep up an energy that stops it from becoming purely depressing. Plimpton and Perkins share a chemistry that makes it painful to see their friendship fall apart, something reflected in Gibson and Ikhile’s story arc. This is a generally strong cast, and obviously after The OA it was good to see Patrick Gibson on stage, for reasons of acting.

With an ending that somehow manages to simultaneously twist the knife in and offer a glimmer of hope, Sweat is nobody’s idea of light entertainment but is still a surprisingly easy watch, seeming much shorter than two and a half hours and proving that serious theatre with a tough message doesn’t have to be a depressing lecture.

Sweat by Lynn Nottage is booking until the 2nd of February at the Donmar Warehouse.

Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Johan Persson.

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