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Updated: May 9

Lynn Nottage

Royal Exchange Theatre Company

Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester

April 26-May 25, 2024: 2 hours 45 minutes

Pooky Quesnel (Tracey) and Carla Henry (Cynthia) in Sweat at the Royal Exchange Theatre cr Helen Murray
Work mates: Pooky Quesnel (Tracey) and Carla Henry (Cynthia) in Sweat at the Royal Exchange Theatre. All pics: Helen Murray

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Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, set in the “rust belt” of America in the early years of the present century, sets out to tell a story of working class life as it really was.

There’s plenty of gritty realism: the characters seem to endure miserable lives, shout at each other a lot of the time, employ the f-word in almost every other sentence, and are concerned mainly with their own resentments and jealousies.

It's not an attractive picture; whether it’s truthful is something I’m not qualified to say. The author spent time in Reading, Pennsylvania, researching it by interviewing steelworkers, business owners, police officers and drug addicts, though her own upbringing was a much more sheltered one in New York.

Yet it’s strangely monochrome. Much of the action happens in a bar, so the feuds are drink-fuelled and the reality of having been in the same machinist’s job for 20 or 30 years, or more, can only be talked about, not shown. Structurally, the play is book-ended by a scene in which two of the young generation are trying to put their lives together again after "doing time" for the violence which we see eventually in the main storyline. The first part shows us Cynthia (Carla Henry) and Tracey (Pooky Quesnel) as shop-floor colleagues, aware that something’s going wrong with their previously-secure existence, ending with the news that they’re all to be fired and re-hired on much lower pay. Cynthia puts in for a supervisor’s job in the hope of bettering herself, and gets it. The second part opens with a flash-forward to a time – long after the resulting strike – when both have lost their roles and fallen on hard times, but then retracts to an exposition of the strike and its picket-lines, lock-outs, scabbing and desperation, culminating in a fight scene (beautifully choreographed by Kaitlin Howard) that is rather reminiscent of a saloon brawl in a B-movie Western.

In Jade Lewis’s production the time shifts are signified solely by replays of news reports of US civil strife and presidential elections, and the set itself is an unchanging framework of steel railings and shelves mounted on the revolve. Hanging above are what seem to be large cast steel blocks, one of which slips threateningly downwards for a while, but which otherwise are purely symbolic: cold and hard as the people below them. We realise it’s not actually the bar, from time to time, from the dialogue and (once) the sound effects.

The strength of the play (and the performance) lies in the characters Nottage created and the vividness with which they’re brought to life in performance. Not all are more than stock models: Jessie (Kate Kennedy), for instance, is the works drunk and serves as a source of comedy; Oscar (Marcello Cruz) is a likeable young immigrant; Stan the barman (Jonathan Kerrigan) is the decent guy who’s seen it all and offers sense and sympathy, and Evan the counsellor (Aaron Cobham) is all uprightness and warmth.

But Brucie (Chris Jack, in a multi-faceted portrayal) is an older man on dope and booze who’s wasted his life but still looks on the bright side. His broken marriage to Cynthia and attempts to revive it are a recurrent theme in the story.

Pooky Quesnel and Carla Henry have the meat of it, as their former close relationship strains and breaks, while their respective sons, Jason (Lewis Gribben) and Chris (Abdul Sessay) forge a new alliance of the coming generation.

This being America, the play is not just about industrial decline and hard times, but race. Cynthia, Chris and Brucie are black, Tracey and Jason are white, Oscar is Hispanic, and their roles are made to typify their origins.

If there is a message in the play, it’s a simplistic one of hoping for better times to come, but the lasting impression, to a non-American, is of an entire society rotting from within.

More info and tickets here


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