The Arts Club Theatre Company, Stanley Theatre, until November 18th
My Two Pence
After having watched Lynn Nottage's other Pulitzer prize winning play Ruined last year at the Pacific Theatre I was excited to witness what she would do in a western setting especially as the woven narrative of the Congo was so aptly represented in the former. I have to admit to being a little disappointed. While the play is most certainly engaging; the subject matter is all too familiar and it didn't open a door to a world I was unaware of. I found Ruined deeply upsetting and an almost epiphanic experience. Sweat is definitely well written; but having been acquainted with similar characters of old I was less interested by their story and also have limited empathy for their plight.
Sweat is set in Reading, Pennsylvania; a town which was named the most stricken by poverty in the early 2000s. We are introduced to seven characters who are all or have all at one point been machine operators in the local factory. The play explores the struggle of a blue-collar community with delusions of life-time job security as they deal with economic pressures to cut wages, staff and the daunting prospect of outsourcing. Within this construct micro-struggles occur between the characters as they try to determine which of them most deserve their positions. Ultimately long-term friendships and familial ties break down as the heat under the pressure cooker increases and sides are drawn along the picket line.
One day I hope to no longer say this; but three primary female characters over 40, and factory workers at that - Insert hand clap emoji! I mean, it's not like women were running all the factories during the war or anything. It really was pleasing to watch rowdy women in a bar, having conversations about their career goals rather than whining about love. Marci. T House brings electric charisma to the stage; fully embodying the character of Cynthia, who having climbed onto the next wrung of the ladder after over twenty years service now has to face the daunting task of being on the management side of the picket line. In a play where subtlety is lacking, Ashley Wright is a breath of fresh air. His portrayal of an injured factory worker turned avuncular bartender is nuanced and compelling. While the performances on the whole were strong; I felt the unwelcome machine-driven metaphor extend into some moments - where line-reading and 'reacting but not listening' seemed to rear their ugly heads.
I was particularly impressed with the choreography of the fight scene. The execution was hardly pro-wrestling standard but it was dramatic and very creative - a testament to Fight Director Jonathan Hawley Purvis.
Sociologically Sweat is an intriguing hot potato; I believe I would have felt more empathy for the characters had they not been so über-confident to begin with. There seemed to be little room for vulnerability, furthered by propped stances and gestures bordering on mechanical. Perhaps a directorial note to extend the metaphor, perhaps some actors that need to warm up to their new skins.
While sadly relevant in light of the technological revolution and the slow march towards automisation the premise of Sweat is not groundbreaking. To a lefty-leaning-sort-of-artsy-fartsy-namby-pamby person Sweat provides an insight into how the other half think; but since most of us (alas) have a Brexiter in our family droning on about the dangers of globalisation we've already heard it. Nostalgia is a disease.