Paul T Davies reviews Lynn Nottage’s award-winning play Sweat which is now playing at the Gielgud Theatre, London for a limited season.
This Donmar Warehouse production transfers into the West End with a lot of pedigree and critical acclaim to live up to. Writer Lynn Nottage is the only woman in history to win two Pulitzer Prizes for Drama, and Lynette Linton’s production was a hot ticket at the Warehouse. It’s easy to see why; this beautiful bruise of a play is devastating in its opposition to capitalism, yet allows humanity and the spirit of caring to rise slowly to the surface. It helps that it is performed by an absolutely flawless cast.
In the forgotten heartland of industrial America, in Reading, Pennsylvania, a community work in what as the manufacturing hub of the American Dream. The workers congregate in the local bar, where everyone knows your name, but this isn’t Cheers. Set in 2000, with the presidential campaign providing a pertinent background, the bosses begin to remove machinery from the plant, and hire casual workers at a cheaper rate. Friendships buckle and break, racism rises to the surface, the play is a pressure cooker that builds and then when the steam is released, devastating in showing how profit before people means that the richest country in the world seems not to have a problem with poverty and homelessness.
The play begins years after the main events, and begins with Evan, (Sule Rimi), interviewing Jason, newly released from jail, SS tattoos on his face, a superb performance by Patrick Gibson, bristling with anger and violence, yet completely broken. In the bar, in 2000, he is best friends with Chris, (Osy Ikhele), no racism there, what has happened for Jason to slip to the far right? Martha Plimpton is simply outstanding as Tracey, just a normal person, working at the plant since she was teenager, best friends with Cynthia, (equally excellent Clare Perkins), whose promotion to management brings to the surface latent racism. Stuart McQuarrie is excellent as barman Stan, the constant, stable factor, whose job involves trying the keep the peace more and more as the events unfold. Leanne Best is wonderful as alcoholic Jessie, trapped in a downward spiral she and we know she won’t get out of. Every nuance of Nottage’s script is beautifully played, and there is humour in equal measure to shocks.
The triumph of the play is its quiet demonstration that, due to the market crashes that then followed, the seeds of protest votes, of not voting, of believing the rhetoric of politicians that claim to listen to the “ordinary working class people”, of wanting to disrupt the system, began in 2000. These people could be steelworkers in South Wales, or workers in the car industry. The play teems with humanity and is one of the most affecting plays you will see this year.