Review: Sweat, Donmar Warehouse

The ferocious Sweat may not feel festive at the Donmar Warehouse but its message is ultimately one perfect for the season

“You could wake up tomorrow and all your jobs are in Mexico”

Lynn Nottage’s Sweat won the 2017 Pulitzer Prize for Drama and on the evidence of Lynette Linton’s production for the Donmar Warehouse, deservedly so. Based on interviews with the residents of Reading, Pennsylvania – one of the poorest towns of its size in the USA – it proves an utterly compelling examination of the all-too-personal impact of deindustrialisation. 

Written in 2015, hindsight encourages us to find remarkable prescience in Nottage exploring the kind of economic dissatisfaction that propelled Trump to power but the truth is more layered than that. Set in 2000, with brief forays into 2008, the desperation that poverty inculcates in people is stripped of partisanship as we’re just left to bear witness to those who just believe they have no other choice.

Nottage understands that it is never as simple as ‘just get another job’ as central figures Cynthia, Tracey and Jessie all work in the same factory where their parents did, and drink in the same bar, tended by a former factory worker who was signed off after an industrial accident – there are no other options in places like these. Indeed, when Cynthia gets a promotion to management, it shatters the fragile equilibrium in the group and beyond.

If there’s any weakness here, it is that Nottage clearly has so much to say via her interviewees and perhaps works in too many complex labour issues. But you never once lose sight of the veracity of it all – dialogue that rings true, thoroughly believable relationships, breaking points that are horrifically inevitable. Clare Perkins and Martha Plimpton are exceptional as friends torn apart, Patrick Gibson and Osy Ikhile just as powerful as their sons whose future, as we see in the 2008 scenes, is not too bright.

Frankie Bradshaw’s cluttered bar-room set gets it just right, the sense of industrial decline that is wearing everyone down. And yet the desire to work remains an all-powerful one, a pungent rejoinder to those who would dismiss the feckless or the deplorables, they just need to be heard. Scorching stuff and hugely recommended (be warned – that final moment will sear itself on your mind), and a fierce statement of intent from Linton as she takes up her new position as AD of the Bush Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 20 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Johan Persson
Sweat is booking at the Donmar Warehouse until 26th January

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