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Sweat (Susan Elkin reviews)

Lynn Nottage
society/company: Tower Theatre Company (directory)
performance date: 29 Feb 2020
venue: Tower Theatre, Stoke Newington N16 7HR
reviewer/s: Susan Elkin (Sardines review)

Photographs courtesy of David Sprecher

I arrived at Tower Theatre for Sweat with no idea of what to expect. I have limited experience of Lynn Nottage’s work and didn’t know this play. In the event I was – unexpectedly – quite bowled over. This is the first amateur performance of Sweat (it had a West End run in 2018) in the UK and I doubt that it could be in better hands than those of this strong cast and their director, Ian Hoare.

A powerful play, it is about a community being torn apart by the changes in the industry which sustains them all. It examines the effect of job loss on individuals and families and has its roots in meetings Nottage had with redundant steel workers in Reading, Pennsylvania. It’s angry, anguished writing.

The first half feels a bit episodic and it’s a while before it’s clear that this is a story being told with time shifts and a framing device. Factory bosses need/want fewer workers although families have worked in this industry for generations. The workers meet continually in a bar which acts as theatrical glue. Tensions mount, especially in the second act, when one of them is promoted to management. Then there’s an incident which leads to two young men going to prison and it’s their being interviewed by a quasi social worker which frames the rest of the piece.

The quality and conviction of the acting is outstanding. Isaiah Bobb-Semple is a charismatic young performer who brings throughtful warmth to the cerebral Chris who should have gone to college instead of prison. Lande Belo, as his mother, develops her character with real truthfulness from a relatively carefree factory worker enjoying herself with her friends to a suited manager trying to be fair, keep her job and not betray her mates and, eventually a weary woman trying to survive by doing two menial jobs.

Peta Barker is impressively naturalistic as the social worker trying to talk sense into two sulky young men and Matthew Vickers is a very believable barman listening to his customers/friends and trying to keep the peace. I was also very taken with Richard Bobb Simple (presumably he and Isaiah are father and son in real life, too) as the pitiful, broken Brucie.

At the performance I saw that there was a technical problem at the beginning which meant that two actors started the show almost unlit. It is greatly to their credit and professionalism that they simply carried on until, about ten minutes in, the issue was resolved. It didn’t affect the quality or impact of the show at all because it was so competently worked round.

This is a show which hits you squarely between the eyes especially at the shocking climax and in the simplicity of the very last line – spoken by Carlos Fain-Binda as Oscar. Well done, Tower Theatre.


First published by Sardines:

Author information
Susan Elkin Susan Elkin is an education journalist, author and former secondary teacher of English. She was Education and Training Editor at The Stage from 2005 - 2016
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