Set in the pre-Trump days (remember those?), Sweat tells the story of a forgotten town in the US and the decline of the so-called American Dream. Writer Lynn Nottage spent just over two years speaking with the real-life residents of Reading, Pennsylvania, one of the poorest towns in America, and used the knowledge gathered to create this Pulitzer Prize-winning play currently running at the Donmar Warehouse.
Sweat begins with two young men, Chris (Osy Ikhile) and Jason (Patrick Gibson), who have been recently released from prison and are meeting individually with their parole officer. Through a series of flashbacks from 2008 to 2000, the audience discovers more about their lives and the people around them living in this small town, where working at the steel factory is a way of life, a rite of passage passed down from generation to generation. When they’re not at work, the locals gather at Mike’s Tavern, run by the trusty barman Stan (Stuart McQuarrie). But tensions arise when long-time friends and factory floor workers Cynthia (Chris’s mum, played by Clare Perkins) and Tracey (Jason’s mum, played by Martha Plimpton) apply for a promotion to office worker. Friendships are put to the test when Cynthia is given the job over her friend, then later when management propose staff take a substantial pay cut and go against the union agreement by employing immigrant workers.
Sweat brilliantly depicts the decline of the blue collar industry. Director Lynette Linton expertly weaves the action together, and it builds beautifully to a shocking and heartwrenching conclusion that really packs a punch. It’s a timely and gravely relevant story that will strike cords in both America and here in the UK, what with divides over Brexit and attitudes towards immigration. Lynn Nottage’s research into the real town of Reading has paid dividends, and she’s created detailed and relatable characters whose lives are all centred around the factory and are subsequently affected by these industrial changes – from Stan, who used to work at the factory until an injury put him to work behind the bar; to Jessie (Leanne Best), who’s been a factory floor worker since she was eighteen and is often found passed out behind the bar following a drink (or three) after work.
The relatable characters combined with the all-too familiar setting (for anyone who’s ever been to a bar in America), designed by Frankie Bradshaw combine to ensure that the audience feels part of the scene, not to mention the community, and the stories of these fictional Reading residents are highlighted by the outstanding company of actors. Everyone impresses and are completely convincing, both in their roles and friendships, but special mention must go to Clare Perkins and Martha Plimpton who are extraordinary. It really does feel as though you’re witnessing the breakdown of a real friendship and it’s impossible not to sympathise with both characters.
Sweat is an outstanding, gripping and powerful drama with a cast of standout actors, a brilliant script and inspiring direction. Tickets are scarce and it ends on Saturday so start queuing for day seats now – you won’t regret it.
Photo credit: Johan Persson