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Sweat at the Royal Exchange Theatre is ‘a timely examination on the human toll of economic downturns’

Sweat at the Royal Exchange Theatre examines the human cost of the 2000 US recession.
Sweat at the Royal Exchange Theatre

Set in the rust belt town of Reading, Pennsylvania, The Pulitzer Prize winner Sweat takes an unflinchingly close look at the human cost behind the American recession of 2000, which caused nationwide factory closures and plunged whole communities into poverty almost overnight.

Sweat at the Royal Exchange

Sweat at the Royal Exchange Theatre
Marcello Cruz (Oscar), Jonathan Kerrigan (Stan) – Photo Helen Murray

Chiefly, the play (written by Lynn Nottage and directed by Jade Lewis) focuses on three longtime friends and coworkers during 2000-2008.
Tracey, Cynthia, and Jessie are each trying to cope with the realities of living in one of the poorest towns in America.

The unstable future of their jobs at the steel factory causes deep rifts across the whole town, and the women must grapple with the ramifications of devoting their lives to a thankless job that may disappear as quickly as it came.

Tracey (Pooky Quesnel) joined the factory floor of Olstead’s right out of high school and as such, she is extremely defensive of her job.

Quesnel plays her with a terrier-like intensity. She is a strong and commanding presence on stage and embodies the character completely.

Cynthia (Carla Henry) is one of the characters who feels the most like a real person. She is simply trying to make the best of what she has, while understanding that life isn’t fair.

A skilled performance from Carla Henry

Henry is a skilled and accomplished performer who conveys Cynthia’s complexities and conflicts wonderfully.

Abdul Sessay excels in his portrayal of Chris. He brings a sensitivity and a complexity to the role.

He demonstrates a deep understanding of the character that allows the audience to connect with the piece.

Kate Kennedy provides much of the comic relief and generates big laughs from the audience.

In contrast, Jessie also struggles with the particular grief of missed opportunities. She manages this dichotomy well.

A ferocious performance from Lewis Gribben

In every scene, Jason has an unpredictable and incensed energy that feels all too real. This is down to the ferocity of Lewis Gribben’s performance which helps to build tension.

Stan is an ex-factory worker turned bartender who was forced to leave the plant due to a workplace injury.

He is often the voice of reason. Jonathon Kerrigan feels natural in this role and lends a real authenticity to the play. His relationship with young co-worker Oscar was a particular highlight.

Oscar (Marcello Cruz) is simply trying to get ahead and becoming increasingly more frustrated as the play continues. Cruz shows this frustration well and while you may not agree with every decision he makes, you can understand them.

The characters in Sweat are not necessarily meant to be likeable.

Complex and flawed characters

They are meant to be complex and flawed, a true reflection of the people in Reading, Pennsylvania and other towns like it. However, it is difficult to empathise with certain characters who are nothing but hard edges, as they feel rather one note.

Ultimately, Sweat is supposed to be a true-to-life drama inspired by real events, but the human touch is lost as the writing only allows for archetypal, one-dimensional characters.

The most disappointing thing about Sweat was the portrayal of disability.

As a wheelchair user myself, I am perhaps hyper-aware of how disabled characters are written and the narrative purposes they serve.

Unfortunately, I feel that Sweat missed the mark. As the plot unfolds, an event occurs that leaves a character with brain damage and hearing loss. While this could have been done sensitively, it veered towards an offensive caricature.

The actor simply affected their voice to convey their newfound intellectual disabilities.

As I understand it, this plot point serves to represent a physical manifestation of consequences and the shame felt by two characters as a result of their actions.
I wish that disability was not reduced to something to be pitied, a cheap plot twist, or something to reflect the ‘goodness’ of those non-disabled people who are ‘willing’ to take care of them.

Despite the frantic energy of certain scenes, Sweat struggles to maintain its pace.

Tension is built with rapid dialogue and interesting character dynamics but just as quickly dispersed with an ill-timed joke or a meandering conversation.

Although we never actually see Olstead’s factory itself, GOOD TEETH’s set design ensures it looms large over every scene, literally.

Powerful set design

Hanging above the stage are imposing stone slabs that are suspended in mid-air and look as though they may fall at any time. This sets a bleak and industrial tone for the play, while also creating a sense of tension and impending doom that reflects the character’s experiences.

Chiefly, the characters congregate in Stan’s bar, a setting created using a few pieces of bar furniture and a makeshift beer tap.

For something so simple, it is surprisingly effective. You can almost feel the perpetually tacky tables and see the permanent water marks from drinks being set down without a mat.

As the plot develops and circumstances worsen, the stage is almost completely bare.  Though simple, this is very effective and helps convey the hardship each character is facing.

The use of real news reports from that period provides context for the audience. It is an interesting way to break up scenes and cleverly signifies the passage of time within the play.
At various points throughout, the stage begins to rotate slowly. This is effective as it echoes the cyclical nature of a factory assembly line as well as the inescapable nature of generational trauma.

Tickets for Sweat at the Royal Exchange

At its heart, Sweat is an all too familiar cautionary tale. The things it has to say are extremely worthwhile and timely but the execution leaves something to be desired.

Sweat is at The Royal Exchange Theatre until Saturday 25th May 2024, tickets can be booked by clicking here

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