Tuesday, July 23

Sweat – Royal Exchange Theatre

Set in 2000 and 2008, both ends of the Bush Presidency, Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Sweat depicts life in Reading, Pennsylvania –  a working class industrial town in the heart of America’s Northeast and Midwest Rust Belt. In this pre-Trump era we meet the locals who spend their down time and hard earned wages in a local bar and we follow their lives as they, the labour force, the working class community, are disenfranchised so significantly that the resulting anger led to reliable ‘blue’ states turning politically red and the Trump era began.

When entering the unique theatre in Manchester’s Royal Exchange my initial thoughts always head towards design. What have they done with the space? I am always excited to go into one of the most thrilling theatre spaces in the UK. Tonight, the audience gathered around an industrial working-class bar; constructed from steel, functional, a strong square frame with an octagonal underlayer and a tough, square patterned linoleum that will cope with the blood, sweat and tears that are coming its way. It is part workers canteen, part cage, part boxing ring. Above us, an octagon of large, semi rusted steel boulders hang in place; firm and solid, collective yet monolithic and later cleverly precarious and threatening. GOOD TEETH’s design is strong and powerful and punctuated with sparks firing, smoke and steam rising. This, combined with Elena Peňa’s excellent soundscape of industrial machinery distantly bellowing and scraping, of furnaces firing and of the rhythms of hard graft, the packed house feels tangibly part of the action before it has begun.

Initially the action places us in 2008 in the office of Evan (Aaron Cobham) Parole Officer to the newly released Jason (Lewis Gribben) full of hatred, agitation and Aryan ideology, and Chris (Abdul Sessay) penitent and anxious and armed with his bible. We do not know their crime but we do know their partnership led to prison sentences now served.

And so back to the year 2000, to the bar where the story begins.  Stan (Justin Kerrigan) is our host. Kerrigan is wise, compassionate, all seeing. He is rational, he understands and we anchor to him easily. It is a night of celebration, a birthday. Cynthia (Carla Henry) and Tracey (Pooky Quesnel) are best friends, sisters in spirit They dance, drink, sing and drink some more only occasionally pausing from their frivolity to tend to the seriously inebriated and highly comic Jessie (Kate Kennedy). They are women who work hard and play hard and there is a hard love between them.

Photo: Helen Murray

We discover that they have all loved and lost their men; one to widowhood, one to another woman and one to drugs and whilst this unites them to some degree, gradually, as time progresses, their relationships disintegrate when Cynthia and Tracey both apply for the same management position.

When Cynthia, who is black, succeeds in landing the promotion, Tracey’s racism emerges and division begins. Henry and Quesnel both present women who are steel to the core. Quesnel is sharp and spikey, presenting a tough straight speaking woman with great skill. Henry excels in the central role. When she steps off the shop floor and up to management, it is she who is unwittingly placed in the firing line when the company move much of their operation away from Pennsylvania, recruit cheaper local Latin American workers, lock out their existing staff and provoke a strike. Caught between a rock and a hard place there is great range and depth to Henry’s performance as she deals with her impossible position amongst her co-workers and friends, manages her charming but addicted husband (Chris Jack) and descends into a place where hope is hard to find.

As her son Chris, and Tracey’s son Jason, fight to save their jobs, deep tensions grow to anger and Columbian-American bartender Oscar becomes the focus of their xenophobia with disastrous consequences for him, for them and for others around them. Kaitlan Howard’s fight choreography is brutal and savage and the actors performing it are stunning.

Jade Lewis’s direction pulls together the unity, strength and humanity of community with humour and bite and then shatters it using the accuracy of Nottage’s writing to devastating effect by drawing us in and pulling no punches. Using the slow rotation of the set to allow the audience to have a 360° view of the acting space and punctuated by newsreel commentary of the era was especially immersive and cleverly effective.

As the final devastating scene is played, on the eve of Barack Obama’s election victory and thoughts steer towards our knowledge of what is to come, you can fully understand why this award-winning play was described as “the first theatrical landmark of the Trump era”.

This production hits with a gut-wrenching blow delivered by a powerful cast.

Playing until 25th May, https://www.royalexchange.co.uk/event/sweat/

Reviewer: Lou Kershaw

Reviewed: 1st May 2024

North West End UK Rating:

Rating: 4 out of 5.