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Sweat | Royal Exchange Manchester

The unique nature of the Royal Exchange as a performance space has opened up many productions for some truly special theatrical experiences, and this new revival of Lynn Nottage’s Pulitzer Prize winning play Sweat is no exception. Set around the turn of the 21st century, the play opens and closes with two ex-cons going through counselling following their recent release from prison, around the time of Obama’s election. However, the timeline rewinds by eight years for the bulk of the action, following the lives of a group of factory workers, in a fictional bar in the town of Reading in Pennsylvania. We experience just how their respective lives are affected by the culmination of modern America’s deindustrialisation, and how the events that unfolded led to the imprisonment of the two young men in question.

Whilst the overriding narrative is underpinned by social issues such as poverty, race and workplace politics, it is the contention experienced between the characters, and the disintegration of various and collective relationships as a result of the strike action taken, that are the driving force of this play. And the respective stories are steeped in realism, as they are taken from extensive interviews of real life citizens of the town of Reading, highlighting the unabridged anger and frustration that later would fuel the republican return to power in 2016.

There are several moments of contention that contribute to the dramatic build and ultimate violent climax, and what Nottage portrays brilliantly is how one’s work can act as part of one’s identity as opposed to a mere means of survival, whilst also having these contrasting ideologies meld into one in various guises. This is most notable in the relationship between the two matriarchal figures Cynthia and Tracey, portrayed masterfully by Carla Henry and Pooky Quesnel respectively, as each woman showcases their depth of performance abilities, and managing to both convince the audience of their respective viewpoints. And I felt this was important, as the two opposing trajectories their lives take are as relevant today as ever, with one feeling downtrodden by a corporate machine that sympathises with nobody, whilst another staunchly defends her own personal struggle and refuses to let an opportunity to put it behind her slip by, in spite of the personal damage this ends up doing.

Staging this play at an in-the-round auditorium such as the Royal Exchange not only gives the audience wonderful proximity to the action, but provides ample opportunities for the endlessly talented creative team to flourish. The set is designed with some real ingenuity, and the stage revolve is used subtly but highly effectively, however it’s the lighting by Elliot Griggs and sound design by Elena Peña that really enhances the storytelling, providing subtle but noticeable hints as to the timeline, with the US political landscape in particular playing a big part through use of radio clips.

Even more than 20 years after this was set, the thematic structure still applies strongly to the modern USA, and Nottage’s magnum opus delivers strongly in terms of the impact of corporate corruption, and both the financial and personal effect it has on the people employed by big businesses. This is a groundbreaking piece of theatre, newly staged with thrilling originality, and performed magnificently.

Sweat runs at Royal Exchange Manchester until 25th May. For more information and tickets, you can follow the link here.


Gifted tickets in return for an honest review | photography by Helen Murray


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