Sweat at The Gielgud – review

Sweat- an important visceral play by Lynn Nottage.

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

There is so much I could say about this play but I want to concentrate on the central story which concerns the deindustrialisation that happened in the US in the early 21st century. It’s something we in the UK are only too familiar with.  Our government, like many others, moved the economy away from manufacturing, letting those jobs go to China, Mexico and other developing countries where labour was cheap.

Production shot of Leanne Best, Martha Plimpton and Clare Perkins in the Donmar production of Sweat at the Gielgud Theatre
Leanne Best, Martha Plimpton and Clare Perkins in Sweat. Photo: Johan Persson

In Sweat the action takes place in 2000 in Reading, Pennsylvania and is based on true events surrounding factory closures. Lynn Nottage has created complex believable characters and we see at first hand their sense of ­betrayal,  loss and anger. They feel betrayed because generations had worked at the factory and displayed what they saw as loyalty. They lose their way of life and their sense of worth.

In a succession of scenes, the main characters meet up in a bar that looks as industrial as a factory. In particular we meet two good friends Tracey and Cynthia. At first all is well but we can see the seeds of what will happen. Unlike Tracey and her son Jason (Patrick Gibson) who see working on the line as their lives, Cynthia and her boy Chris (Osy Ikhile) aspire to get away from the grind of the factory floor. Chris plans to go to college, Cynthia would like to move into management.

Both women apply for a supervisor vacancy, Tracey just for the hell of it but Cynthia because she really wants it.  When the more suitable Cynthia gets it, Tracey who’s white puts it about that Cynthia only got the job because she’s black- in other words, because of positive discrimination. Racism, it seems, is just waiting below the surface like sewer beneath a road. When the factory threatens jobs, the division between old friends just gets worse as does prejudice against any ethnic minority.

Martha Plimpton in Sweat. Photo: Johan Persson

Tracey is repulsive. She’s undoubtedly the life and soul of the party but she’s also ignorant and blindly prejudiced. And very aggressive- Mike Tyson would hesitate to pick a fight with her. It’s a layered character brilliantly conveyed by Martha Plimpton. You are appalled by her but you know enough about her to recognise her as a fellow human and to realise her biggest problem is a lack of education, which leads to her inability to see the bigger picture, and her failure to see that her interest lies in unity not division.

Clare Perkins in Sweat. Photo: Johan Persson

When we go forward eight years, we see the long lasting devastating effects of job loss on individuals when a whole community becomes poor. Frankie Bradshaw’s set now represents the isolation of homes rather than the community of the bar. Clare Perkins breaks your heart as Cynthia who dreamed of improving her life and ends up used, abused and struggling to survive.

There is a shocking act of violence involving Jason and Chris that stems from the threatened factory closure. Perhaps Jason was always likely to resort to violence when under pressure but it is easy to see what happens as a metaphor for the blows against the establishment struck by working class people voting for Trump or Brexit.

Lynette Linton‘s direction is tight and the characters express themselves as physically as they do verbally. While the production might not be as visceral as it must have been in the cockpit of its original venue The Donmar, Sweat remains a harrowing, important experience. It brings home the shocking reality of the effect of deindustrialisation on people and communities.  It also gives us an insight into why we are seeing such a rise in racism and populism.

Sweat can be seen at the Gielgud Theatre until 20 July 2019. Click here for information and tickets

Click here to watch watch the review on YouTube

Anne-Marie Duff in Sweet Charity – Donmar – Review

Anne-Marie Duff adds Wow Factor to excellent production of Sweet Charity

5 out of 5 stars (5 / 5)

Sweet Charity with book by Neil Simon, music by Cy Coleman and lyrics by Dorothy Fields.

This would be an excellent production with any musical star but Anne-Marie Duff adds a wow factor. She may not be as good a singer or dancer as those who’ve made a career out of musicals but she can sing and she can dance and she brings to the part all the emotional depth of a great actor. You feel her pain and you feel her ecstasy, and her pick-yourself-up-and-try-again smile is infectious.

Production shot of Anne-Marie Duff in Sweet Charity at the Donmar Warehouse. Photo by Johan Persson
Anne-Marie Duff in Sweet Charity. Photo: Johan Persson

Charity is a taxi dancer in the 1960s. If you don’t know what that is (and I didn’t), it’s someone who works in a club where punters can hire them for a dance, and sometimes more. Charity believes in love. Despite being conned and let down many times, she remains an optimist and keeps looking for love. When things go wrong, she simply changes reality to suit her romantic view of love.

Ironically, despite being no virgin, she remains an innocent, which is the essence of her vulnerability but it’s also her strength. You could simply dismiss her as a naive fool, instead her way of seeing the best in people and not losing hope is inspirational. We want her to find love, even though we fear she won’t.

Anne-Marie Duff is perfect for the part. Her song-and-dance rendering of If My Friends Could See Me Now complete with a routine with a top hat and cane perfectly conveys Charity’s child-like unaffectedness. And her I’m A Brass Band is a joyous expression of what it feels like to be in love.

Production shot of Anne-MarieDuff and Arthur Darrell in Sweet Charity at The Donmar Wrehouse in London. Photo: Johan Persson
Anne-MarieDuff (left) and Arthur Darrell in Sweet Charity. Photo: Johan Persson

But it’s not a one woman show.

Arthur Darvill as Charity’s shy insecure boyfriend and Martin Marquez as a charming and charmed (by Charity) film star are both superb. Most of all there are the women who make up the rest of the taxi dancers. Their performance and reprise of Big Spender are astonishing. In the intimate setting of the Donmar where the audience is only four rows deep, these women saying ‘Let me show you a good time?’ is very personal.

Production shot of Charlotte Jaconelli and the ensemble in Sweet Charity at The Donmar in London. Photo by Johan Persson
Charlotte Jaconelli and the ensemble in Sweet Charity. Photo: Johan Persson

The stunning choreography by Wayne McGregor, paying homage to the original work by Bob Fosse, evokes Cabaret and Chicago. Robert Jones’ set, a simple open stage with silvery props and furniture inspired by Andy Warhol’s 1960s Silver Factory, suggests Charity’s bright optimism in a harsh world.

What a way for director Josie Rourke to bow out as Artistic Director of the Donmar.

Sweet Charity can be seen at the Donmar until 8 June 2019

Here’s the link to the YouTube review of Sweet Charity

Review revised on 18 April to add further description of design.