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Justin Murray

Review: SWEAT at the Gielgud Theatre

Sweat is the Pulitzer-winning play by Lynn Nottage, transferring to the Gielgud straight from the Donmar. Directed by new Bush artistic director Lynette Linton, whose rise through the London theatre scene has been almost unprecedentedly meteoric.

Leanne Best, Martha Plimpton and Clare Perkins in Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse directed by Lynette Linton, designed by Frankie Bradshaw. Photo Johan PerssonLeanne Best, Martha Plimpton and Clare Perkins in Sweat directed by Lynette Linton, designed by Frankie Bradshaw. Photo Johan Persson

It tells the story of the people of Reading, Pennsylvania, once industrial powerhouse, reputedly one of the most underprivileged towns in the US. We’re shown proleptic glimpses of Jason (Patrick Gibson, of The OA fame) and Chris (Osy Ikhile) out of jail after committing an unspeakable crime; but in the present, there are problems in the town steelworks to deal with. Cynthia (Clare Perkins) has just taken a promotion over her old mates on the floor Tracy (Martha Plimpton) and Jessie (Leanne Best) and as the bosses are about to lay off jobs and strikes are threatened, she’s about to be caught in the middle of something she can’t control. Meanwhile Oscar (Sebastian Viveros), the quiet Hispanic guy who sees the steelworks as his own personal American dream, is tempted to cross the line and commit the cardinal sin of scabbing. It’s a simmering melting pot, but how will it boil over?

Dealing with exploitation of the working classes, privilege, discrimination, and so many other relevant issues, it’s a winning pitch in all sorts of ways. And let’s be clear: it is huge to have a play written by a woman of colour, directed by a woman of colour, on a West End stage. (Is this a first?) Dramaturgically, it feels a little like Caryl Churchill’s Top Girls, but with class as the dominating divisive factor rather than gender: there, as I wrote a few weeks ago a man’s world bereft of men leaves the women free to scrabble to get ahead; here, the oppressing figures of middle management and the fat-cats are absent leaving the stage free for the oppressed to fight it out between them. Tough love in the most difficult of circumstances is the dominant theme. Get over it, says Tracey to Cynthia after arriving an hour late to her birthday party; an addict begs his son for $10 to tide him over. There’s also echoes of the great American plays of Arthur Miler and Tennessee Williams, and for a new play to match up to those great old big-hitters is a huge accolade.

However, this production doesn’t always quite deliver on its promises. There are balancing issues within the piece and the ensemble: the first half takes a long time to build, while the second half has some great moments and an explosive final unravelling, but some oddly flat patches. Oddly for a play by a woman, the dialogue between men feels stronger than that between women: Gibson and Ikhile’s exchanges bounce, while the factory girls, all strong individually, feel slightly sterile as a group (possibly as a function of some difficult ‘drunk acting’ in early scenes, which also doesn’t help). The emotional focus in the first half is the conflict between Tracey and Cynthia - will friendship win out over the narrative that Cynthia was picked for promotion on the basis of race? - but this drama gets shunted to the side in favour of the threat of male violence in the final quarter, which feels a little unsatisfying.

Despite some serious stopping power, the creative team also isn’t able to compensate for these issues. Frankie Bradshaw’s imposing design towers up into the heights of the Gielgud, but George Dennis’ sound design is making offers which the transitions aren’t taking up, making these feel like missed opportunities - one cant help feeling like stellar movement director Polly Bennett is underutilised (an issue I’ve also commented on before). It also seems to have become compulsory overnight for big West End shows to make use of their vertical space by using video in scene changes recently (viz. Hamlet, Labour of Love, Oslo, etc), an imperative which this production obeys with largely redundant and derivative news clips and straplines.

Nevertheless, it’s a sometimes excellent production of a sometimes excellent play. I don’t buy the ‘first landmark play of the Trump era’ accolade that’s been attached to it by some, but fans of the Great American Play will feel at home here.