Reviewer’s Rating

The very title of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize-winning 2015 play, ‘Sweat’, evokes the presence of pungent sensory stimuli. Nottage’s ‘Sweat’ acutely observes and explores, with occasional humour, the tragic consequences when manufacturing jobs are lost on industrial scale and livelihood disappears with no alternative employment.

The narrative is based on information gathered through investigative journalism. Nottage conducted lengthy interviews in Reading, Pennsylvania after the 2010 census showing Reading has the highest share of citizens living in poverty in USA. More to the point, this is a social microcosm that may be in anywhere experiencing utter economic erosion left with yawning vacuum.

The performance of the UK premier at the Donmar directed by Lynette Linton is powerful, gripping and very moving.

The dramatic events, forensically yet compassionately explore how bonds and camaraderie among a group of factory workers, mothers and sons, white and black, are frayed to a breaking point by the threat of job losses and looming economic uncertainty.

The play opens in 2008, close to the twilight of George W. Bush’s presidency. Two young males are each facing the Parole Officer (Sule Rimi). Jason (Patrick Gibson), a white youth, uncooperative and indignant that he has to account to a black official, is followed by Chris (Osy Ikhile), black, neat looking and rather keen to move on in life. The two young men have been released from eight years of incarceration.

 The scene that follows is the core narrative of the drama. It starts in the year 2000 in the cosy milieu of a local pub that serves the workers from the iron plant. The barman, Stan (Stuart Mcquarrie), is a white male whose 28 years work at the plant resulted in an accident that left him disabled. He shows empathy for his regulars from the plant. Tracey (Martha Plimpton), Jason’s mother, is a vociferous and somewhat unsentimental woman. Jessie (Leanne Best), white, is a drifter and a ‘follower’ type. The third regular is Cynthia, (Clare Perkins), Chris’s mother. Of the three, she is the most level-headed with earthy intelligence. The three interact and vent emotions and thoughts at the pub. However, the social equilibrium is lost once Cynthia has been promoted.

Powerful and unpleasant scenes reveal the intensity of resentment. Years of close friendship melt overnight in the face of accusations of betrayal. Pain and fear produce a bitter cocktail that the three fail to manage. That Cynthia is black and Tracey and Jessie are white becomes an issue in a way it had not been before and so is the presence of Stan’s helper, Oscar (Sebastian Viveros), whose family comes from Colombia.

Cynthia’s estranged husband, Brucie (Wil Johnson), is a drug addict who lives in a world of his own, yet looms as the dependent section of society that gladly takes what it can and puffs away all responsibilities.

The performance all round is strong but the two women, Martha Plimpton and Clare Perkins, sustain the dramatic tension throughout. There is something endearing in the pathetic character of Brucie. The final act with Stan, Jason, Chris, and Oscar, with very few spoken words, is utterly moving and I would say, heart-wrenching.

Highly recommended.