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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Sweat
Donmar Warehouse Theatre  Winter 2018-2019

In the best tradition of American drama, Lynn Nottage's Pulitzer Prize winning play addresses large social issues through indirection, by showing their effect on the daily lives of ordinary people. All the more powerful for remaining local and specific, it says more than a more polemic piece could.

We are in a company town, the sort of place where just about everyone works for one big employer, people take a factory job right out of school and plan on retiring from the same job fifty years later, and their highest hope is that their children will be able to get a job on the same factory floor.

(Such towns do exist across America, and British audiences might be reminded of mining villages.)

It takes no spoiler alert to guess what's going to happen in the course of the play. An economic downturn will lead the company to cut back and even consider moving the factory someplace where labour is cheaper, and hundreds of lives will be affected.

But that happens later. Nottage deliberately takes her time establishing this world, the entire first act devoted to vignettes of various workers' lives before the crisis.

The setting for most of the action is a local bar, where everyone stops for a beer after work and maybe for some binging on weekends. We see how their shared world of work and common economic situation create friendships that transcend differences of age and race.

But we also see that ordinary friendly joshing sometimes hovers precariously on the edge of going too far, that the one young man with hopes of going to college is ridiculed for having ideas above his station, and that lifetime friendships can be threatened when one person gets a promotion that moves her across the symbolic line into management.

And then the company announces cutbacks and a combination of strike and lockout changes everything – not just everyone's financial situation (which is barely mentioned) but relationships, self-definitions and self-control, climaxing in both reasoned decisions and impulsive acts that change lives forever.

Under Lynette Linton's able direction a cast of American and British actors blend together beautifully to create a reality that is totally convincing and totally absorbing. The strongest performances, in the most fully developed characters, come from Clare Perkins as the worker who finds that taking a better job somehow makes her a villain in the others' eyes, and Martha Plimpton as the most upset and therefore most angry of the workers.

It may have been Clifford Odets, in his Depression-era plays, who first realised that the natural American mode is to focus on the specific and domestic rather than addressing broad (and inevitably nebulous) political and economic questions.

Lynn Nottage's play, and this deeply affecting production, build on that insight that a play must above all be about people to be an effective comment on issues.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review -  Sweat - Donmar Theatre 2018  
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