Skeleton Crew – Donmar Warehouse, London

Reviewer: John Cutler

Writer: Dominique Morisseau

Director: Matthew Xia

Premiered off-Broadway in 2016 and nominated for Best New Play Tony award in 2022, Skeleton Crew is part of LA-based writer Dominique Morisseau’s Detroit Project trilogy, which also includes Detroit ’67 and Paradise Blue. The trilogy focuses on challenges and experiences faced by African Americans in different periods of the city’s history. Though thin on narrative, director Matthew Xia’s atmospheric and warm-hearted production of Skeleton Crew at the Donmar Warehouse boasts four top-notch performances. The piece offers an ultimately uplifting perspective on blue-collar resilience and solidarity in the face of a collapsing American Dream.

Detroit 2008: the once-booming Motor City is in the midst of seemingly unstoppable decline. It is a place where, heavily pregnant stamping-machine operator Shanita (Racheal Ofori) tells us, “Nothing works, the people are mean”, and drivers “don’t merge” (not much different from London then). Co-worker Dez (a tremendous stage debut from Branden Cook) packs a pistol in his backpack, flirts incessantly with a reluctant Shanita, and dreams of opening his own car repair garage.

Then there is boss Reggie (Tobi Bamtefa). On the cusp of middle age, he has worked his way up from the production line to a white-collar job, enabling him to buy a house with a yard for his family. Reggie struggles to reconcile his background with his new-found responsibilities. “The colour of that collar doesn’t change your origins,” Dez tells him acerbically. Matriarch of the quasi-family quartet is union rep and old-timer Faye (a show-stealing turn from Pamela Nomvete). A gruff, plain-speaking lesbian, Faye lords over the factory break room as if it is her personal fiefdom. Antagonists come in the form of the callous management “upstairs”, by implication detached, white, and middle class.

Each of the four workers bears scars, physical or mental, from life at the car plant. But it is also a place where they find community and dignity: a location, embodied in the break room where the action unfolds, in which each enjoys an identity. Bombshell rumours of the factory’s impending closure throw lives and relationships into turmoil. What will happen when each character has to find meaning beyond their work life and their factory connections? “If ‘if’ was a spliff we’d all be high” says Faye, who knows a thing or two about “cars and women” and whose response to unceasing change is simply to live each day as it comes.

Not a huge amount happens in Skeleton Crew beyond coffee drinking, illicit smoking, chatting shit, and gambling. Perhaps the setting feels a little too constrained to be entirely credible as the beating heart of a factory – are there really only four workers sharing breaks in a location of this size? A mysterious series of thefts and sabotages at the plant adds some welcome narrative momentum, as does the growing will-they-won’t-they intimacy between hard-working Shanita and ambitious Dez (whose burgeoning connection is also a source of some much-needed levity).

More interesting are the slow-reveal background disclosures charting the complex bonds between flawed queen-bee Faye and Reggie. Faye’s evangelical son, we learn, disapproves of her sexuality and has more or less excluded her from his life, leaving Reggie both as her boss and de facto child. But is there more to their deep connection than that?

Absent much of a storyline, the piece works most effectively as a nuanced and finely crafted look at the dynamics of a found family, and at working class lives lived under the constant pressure of unwanted change. The plight of workers wheezing under the weight of economic inequity is not exactly unknown to drama. Morisseau’s creations feel especially real and relatable. Never bleak or hopeless, they share a determination to do the best they can. Ultimately the writer finds seeds of hope in a “dumpster fire” of a city on the verge of collapse, seeds that spring from spirit, toughness, and community.

Ofori’s delightful Shanita evinces genuine pride in her work and a woman’s determination to build a better life for her unborn child, the “baby father” being out of the picture. The thrums and hums of the factory machinery, which we hear in menacing volume during scene transitions, form the soundtrack of her life. Cook’s hugely charismatic Dez sees his job as a means to gain independence, a bulwark against the endemic racism he constantly encounters. Bamtefa’s Reggie bubbles with barely suppressed fury. To comic effect, he channels anger at irreconcilable demands into ever more strident employee warnings, which he pins with passive-aggressive zest to the workroom walls.

Most memorable of all is cancer survivor Faye. On the cusp of unwanted retirement, sick, she finds solace in gambling (which she describes as “gracefully and repetitiously taking your money”) and making the best coffee she can. Nomvete tracks her journey from blustery defiance to bitter despair with tremendous dignity, power, and grace.

Runs until 24 August 2024

The Reviews Hub Score

Beautifully acted blue-collar drama

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The Reviews Hub - London

The Reviews Hub London is under the acting editorship of Richard Maguire. The Reviews Hub was set up in 2007. Our mission is to provide the most in-depth, nationwide arts coverage online.

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