'Clyde's' review – Lynn Nottage's genius play finds grace amid the grubbiness and grit

Read our five-star review of Clyde's, by Pulitzer Prize winner Lynn Nottage, now in performances at the Donmar Warehouse to 2 December.

Matt Wolf
Matt Wolf

Lynn Nottage’s Clyde’s was the most-produced play across America last year, with at least 11 productions seen around the country. Now it’s arrived at the America-friendly Donmar Warehouse (their entry just prior to this was the Pulitzer-winning musical Next to Normal) to stake an immediate claim as one of the best offerings of this theatrical year.

Nottage and her Donmar director of choice, the astonishing Lynette Linton, have joined forces before, notably for a superb U.K. premiere of Sweat, which went on to a short West End transfer.

Clyde’s is at least notionally a lighter affair: one doesn’t feel Trumpism hovering over the interval-free action here as one very much did during Sweat. But Linton has a singular gift for mining the rich comedy of Nottage’s writing, all the while allowing fully earned pathos to bubble up when least expected. In theatrical terms, Linton is a supreme chef.

The tough-talking Clyde of the title – Uzo Aduba’s Broadway role – is here taken by Gbemisola Ikumelo, who takes intermittently fierce occupancy of Frankie Bradshaw’s superbly detailed set like a tornado sweeping in and out of view. The play’s “gatekeeper,” Clyde lives by the motto “don’t get too high on hope,” though it’s to Ikumelo’s credit to suggest that Clyde understands more about life’s abrasions than she is prepared to let on.

Not keen on small talk or even smiles, she keeps a tight rein over a motley array of employees, ex-cons all, whose backstories emerge organically throughout a production that feels entirely lived-in.

First among equals must surely be Ronke Adekoluejo’s Tish, an excitable mum who has been out of prison seven months and turns 30 during the action of the play. Coursing with anger down to her fingers (“I’m sensitive, alright?” she says by way of self-justification), she takes immediate exception to new recruit Jason (the splendid Patrick Gibson, a Sweat alum), who meets repeatedly with resistance from a set of co-workers busy defining themselves, in Tish’s chosen battle cry, aptly enough as “the Resistance”.

The avowed romantic Rafael (Sebastian Orozco), the Hispanic sous-chef, has a thing for Tish and wears his heart on a sleeve that is kept busy spreading various fillings and condiments across a mouth-watering array of sandwiches, most of them prepared in full view. (This is one cast that presumably isn’t going hungry.)

Completing the play’s quintet is Olivier winner Giles Terera (Hamilton) in tremendous form as the resident philosopher – every kitchen should have one – who recognises that “just because you left prison doesn’t mean you out of the system.”

Montrellous (the character’s name even sounds lofty) brings notions of balance, order, and composition into the workplace routine of a truckers’ caff as if assembling a sandwich were for him the equivalent of the Pointillist canvases of Sondheim’s Georges Seurat.

The play’s genius is to find grace amid the grubbiness and grit that have marked out these people’s lives and to locate humanity even within the most hardened exterior. Rafael, for instance, has been quite literally scarred by Clyde but is also the first to proffer thanks to her for giving him a place, so to speak, at the table.

Whether Montrellous is rhapsodising about “the perfect artichoke” or Clyde is choking on the word “garnish”, the production transmits joy and deeply felt emotion across an audience visibly thrilled to be in its presence. Count me amongst them.

Clyde's is at the Donmar Warehouse through 2 December.

Photo credit: Clyde's (Photo by Marc Brenner)

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