DramaFeaturedNorth WestReview

Sweat – The Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

Reviewer: Jay Nuttall

Writer: Lynn Nottage

Director: Jade Lewis

2024 is a record year in which over two billion of the world’s population will go to the polls – not least in America with, what seems will be, a Trump vs Biden rematch. The decisions that are made above us and about us are at the heart of Lynn Nottage’s 2017 Pulitzer Prize winning drama. Sweat is a big play with big themes but, ultimately, human stories.

Set in a traditionally working-class town of Reading, Pennsylvania the action is bookended between the years of George W Bush’s presidency (2000-2008) and the spoils of heavy industry that once dominated in decline. Focus in a little further and a downbeat bar the locals inhabit becomes a microcosm of a changing world in which workers and workers’ rights are being replaced with cheaper alternatives. Cynthia (Carla Henry) and Tracey (Pooky Quesnel) have worked in the local factory for years. A closed shop and heavily unionised the labour intense jobs have passed through generations and their sons, Chris (Abdul Sessay) and Jason (Lewis Gribben), are no exception. Ambition is the sacrifice for the ability to pay the bills and have the finances to get obliterated in the bar after a long shift. Cleverly, Nottage employs a non-linear structure and flits between the eight-year gap throughout. The play begins with Chris and Jack in talks with their parole officer having recently been released from prison. The circumstances of their incarceration are left unexplained and as a result Sweat becomes a pressure cooker. We know the fate of the young pair but not the explosion that sent them there. Nottage lets this intrigue to drive the plot and provide a certain level of dramatic irony that infuses the whole drama.

This is an intimate piece of theatre. Designer Good Teeth’s bar is minimalistic and occasionally uses the revolve to keep the action in the round moving complemented by Elena Pena’s sound design that keeps the bar atmosphere bubbling alongside the rolling channel of election and campaign news. It is claustrophobic – reminiscent of the town, the industry and Rust Belt America that is shrinking rapidly in scale. Ally and former worker Stan (Johnathan Kerrigan) runs the bar, limping heavily having been injured at work. A wise head, he is the glue of the piece as young, Hispanic of heritage, bar tender Oscar (Marcello Cruz) is pitted against the community when tempted to undercut the workforce. When Cynthia is promoted to management and the inevitable mass redundancies start to sit on the horizon, lifelong friends become enemies where a fire and rehire culture is the norm for big business.

Director Jade Lewis has done a tremendous job in the casting of the play as well as the naturalism the dialogue lends itself to. Several Manchester actors are in the nine strong cast as well as theatrical debuts for Lewis Gribben and Abdul Sessay. The dialogue is fast, over-lapping and entirely believable. Sweat has been hailed a modern American classic and has favourable comparisons to the work of Arthur Miller and David Mamet. It is easy to see why. It is a play that Miller may have written today: a state-of the-nation piece that resonates beyond the world it inhabits putting humans and human emotions at the heart of a changing landscape the characters cannot control. It is a microcosm that magnifies outwards; an example of what is happening in hundreds of towns not only across America but the world. It has resonance beyond middle America into a world where business of often outsourced to cheaper labour and more efficient, mechanised methods and asks the question about who and what are left behind. Even more impressive is that it sheds a certain sympathetic light on the disenfranchised Americans and how, in 2016, Trump gained massive support with his ‘Make America Great Again’ political campaign.

Sweat is a highly intelligent piece of programming by The Royal Exchange Theatre. In a city with a worker bee mentality the play asks huge questions about capitalism, political apathy and the fracturing of traditional industry. As heavy as the subject matters sound this is not a play that feels heavy. It is often extremely funny, surprising and keeps the suspense ticking until the shocking climax expertly crafted by fight director Kaitlin Howard.

With such well-crafted writing Sweat is an exceptional piece of theatre.

Runs until 25th May.

The Reviews Hub Score

Resonant human drama

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The Reviews Hub - North West

The North West team is under the editorship of John McRoberts. 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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