Review - Sweat at the Donmar Warehouse

Mark Shenton
Mark Shenton

Just under the wire for 2018, the final London play opening of the year has turned out to be one of the very best. It might have even won my vote for the play of the year but for the fact that Matthew Lopez's The Inheritance long got there first.

That does not, however, diminish its significant achievement: while The Inheritance has a scene that shows the utter shock and despair of a group of educated, artsy New York gay men at the election of Donald Trump, Lynn Nottage takes a far longer view and goes to the factory floor in Reading, Pennsylvania -- one of America's poorest cities -- to chronicle a fictionalised version of the disenfranchisement that led directly to his victory.

The masterstroke is that it is not set today but at the turn of the millennium. Here we watch as a local community is decimated, its guts and secure employment wrenched from its residents, as a heavily unionised factory shuts out its workers -- some of its manufacturing machines are moved to Mexico, where labour is much cheaper, and its workers are offered a take-it-or-leave-it offer of a 60% pay cut to remain in work.

Nottage brilliantly sets most of it in the bar where the workers usually socialise, but it is contained in Frankie Bradshaw's stark design in the steel girders of the factory floor where they (used to) toil. The sense of time and place -- and an awful dramatic inevitability -- is established with pinpoint accuracy both in Nottage's intimate yet sweeping narrative energy and also in director Lynette Linton's richly inhabited production.

No spoiler alert is necessary for what happens, as the play is mostly cast as a flashback from the meetings that two young men have with their probation officers, after a period of imprisonment. They are the sons of two women who've been lifelong friends; but their relationship has been challenged by the promotion of one from sweaty factory floor to the air-conditioned offices. But soon we will see bigger fissures open up between them of complicity and betrayal as larger market forces and enforced change come to challenge the way of life and work here.

Nottage's play is a piercing portrait of a community placed under intolerable strain, as their loyalties and self-interests are challenged. Alternately desolate and gripping, it is acted with a piercing, documentary-like truthfulness, particularly from Clare Perkins and Martha Plimpton as the respective mothers to Osy Ikhile's Chris and Parick Gibson's Jason.

Though the action long predates Trump -- and he's never mentioned -- this play helps to contextualise with astonishing clarity just how his rise happened. And it is both chastening and bruising to watch.

Sweat is at the Donmar Warehouse until 26th January.


Originally published on

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