Writer: Lynn Nottage
Director: Ian Hoare
There is no denying that the Tower Theatre Company have ambition, prepared to challenge themselves with an eclectic programme of work, never more so than in the first UK production of Lynn Nottage’s Sweat since its West End transfer last summer. One of the truly great plays of the last five years, Sweat was hailed by critics on both sides of the Atlantic, a big burden to carry for any new interpretation and the Tower almost pulls it off.
In small town America, a group of factory-worker friends gather in the local bar to celebrate a birthday where Cynthia reveals her intention to apply for a new management job. Soon her elevation exposes deep cracks in the community and friend Tracey spreads rumours that Cynthia’s appointment was positive discrimination, and before long two generations of working families as well as colleagues are set at odds by plans to economise as strikes and job losses take their toll on the town’s only sustaining industry.
While the first production at the Donmar Warehouse emphasised the female working class experience, in Ian Hoare’s show at the Tower Theatre that is the weakest element. The confrontations between Cynthia and Tracey feel stagey and while they ably chart the declining and damaged relationship between these women that evokes decades of underlying aspirational containment, loyalty and resentment which manifests in racism and bigotry, the reality of their friendship and the finely calibrated interactions fall a little flat.
But this gives the male characters a more central position, one that draws out the multivariate loss of opportunity that Cynthia’s son Chris and Tracey’s son Jason inherit. The ease of their youth – of drinking, girls and buying fancy trainers – is devastated by the changes at the factory and Hoare’s approach shows how cruelly their future is snatched away from them. The context of damaged parental relationships is for them a toxic inheritance and the injury this causes both accidentally and by the thoughtless acts of the older generation is given renewed clarity in this interpretation.
The pairing of Isiah Bobb-Semple as Chris with Richard Bobb-Semple as Brucie is a superb one and both are outstanding, eliciting all the pain and fracture of their father-son bond, as opportunities go out like lights for both of them. Brucie’s semi-drunken state is sympathetically played while Isaiah Bobb-Semple’s understanding of the hope and desire to escape that drive Chris are hugely meaningful – definitely a young actor we will see much more of.
Nick Edwards has more to do as the damaged 2008 version of Jason but the build-up to his disenfranchisement is well drawn while Carlos Fain-Binda as Oscar has a powerful late scene with Matthew Vickers’ risk-averse bar manager Stan that unveils more depth to the “us” and them” rhetoric which haunts the play on multiple levels and in compelling duologues which expose the gapping cracks that contain racial as well as class resentments.
Wendy Parry’s excellent bar design is less glamorous than the Donmar’s but well conveys the balance of poverty and community that this venue represents, although it is a shame that it so often lacks atmosphere – the low sounds of a jukebox or chatter would do to make this feel less like a set and more their vital port in a storm. Nonetheless, the chance to see this wonderful play again at a fifth of the price of a West End seat should not be missed. It may have shifted the emphasis from its women, but Nottage’s play remains a stark warning that all the while politicians and firms focus on economics, we face a future in which British as well as American working-class people will continue to suffer
Runs until 7 March 2020