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A CurtainUp London Review

"Bottom Line, they don't understand that human decency is at the core of everything. I been jacking all them years and I can count on my hand the number of times they said thank you."
— Stan
Leanne Best as Jessie, Martha Plimpton as Tracey(Photo: Johan Persson)
Lynn Nottage's play Ruined London reviewwas important and award winning. Intimate Apparel London review and Fabulation London review were also notable. With her latest play, Sweat, she becomes the first woman to have won the prestigious Pulitzer prize twice. Seen in the closing days of 2018, the last production in Josie Rourke's reign at the Donmar Warehouse, Sweat is everything I could have hoped for.

Set in Reading, Pennsylvania,Sweat looks at blue collar workers in America and how after years of toiling for the same company they lose their jobs to cheaper labour, from immigrant communities within the United States, or to the residents of Mexico. Reading is a steel town and like Sheffield, in the film 1997 The Full Monty, is one which finds it is losing jobs to cheaper producers abroad. Of course what Lynn Nottage is cleverly documenting is the reason behind the political success of Donald Trump in the 2016 election with the support of blue collar Americans.

Nottage's play is framed by future scenes of two young men, sons of workers at Olstead's factory, Chris (Osy Ikhile) and Jason (Patrick Gibson) initially in their interviews with a probation or parole officer. Frankie Bradshaw's set is heavy industrial, huge pipes, hooks on chains, girders and rusted pipes set high above the stage. Onstage, covers are removed and a bar set is revealed where three of the Olstead women workers gather to celebrate. The barman Stan (Stuart McQuarrie) runs the bar with a busboy Oscar (Sebastian Viveros). Jessie (Leanne Beat) is pretty much wasted but Cynthia (Clare Perkins) and Tracey (Martha Plimpton) are also well oiled but coherent.

We hear about Cynthia's husband, Brucie (Wil Johnson) who has been on strike and is locked out by his factory management for 93 weeks. He had issues with drugs and stolen from Cynthia. Stan, the bar owner, left Olstead's after an industrial accident and has his own opinion on how little the management did for him. Nottage constructed her play after research with the residents of Reading and the play is detailed and authentic as it traces how Cynthia is promoted off the factory floor but is manipulated into becoming an apologist for management. She is of course branded a traitor.

The playwright cleverly uses her characters to tell us what the issues are at the factory. Workers are asked to take a drop in wages and an increase in hours and a loss of benefits like retirement pensions. A leaflet in Spanish advertising opportunities at Olstead's is found by Oscar, reduced wages for the workers who have been there for forty years but a step up for Oscar from clearing bar tables. News bulletins give us the news on presidential elections as well as local items of Reading news.

Lynette Linton's direction is pitch perfect and we note that she is the newly appointed artistic director of the Bush Theatre, the career path that Josie Rourke took before arriving at the Donmar, after Michael Grandage. All the cast are believable but I will single out Martha Plimpton's complex acting role as the worker betrayed by her employers and her best mate. Osy Ikhile too has a promising future, here as Cynthia's son Chris. Clare Perkins' part is pivotal as the ambitious woman offered the poisoned chalice.

I think Sweat is the best new play I have seen this year.

My only reservation on first seeing is that we cannot solve this problem. In the UK, the steel industry and the mines are almost closed. If America is the richest country in the world, why is it that some of its workers are so near the poverty line? Whereas once the role of the unions was to protect workers, now labour is outsourced abroad and the unions are powerless to stop that. It is indeed the Age of De-Industrialization in the Western world. What Sweat does is to explain to the theatre going classes why people voted for someone who promised them a future.

For more about Nottage check out her page in Curtainup's Playwrights' Album.

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Written by Lynn Nottage
Directed by Linette Lindon
Starring: Martha Plimpton, Clare Perkins, Stuart McQuarrie, Sule Rimi, Patrick Gibson, Osy Ikhile, Leanne Best, Sebastian Viveros, Wil Johnson
Design: Frankie Bradshaw
Sound Design and Composer: George Dennis
Lighting Design: Oliver Fenwick
Movement Director: Polly Bennett
Video Director: Gino Ricardo Green
Fight Director: Kate Waters
Running time: Two hours 20 minutes with an interval
Box Office: 020 3282 3808
Booking to 26th January 2019
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 20th December 2018 evening performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2 Theatre (Tube: Covent Garden)
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