Sweat Works Hard For Its Ill-Treated Grafters At Gielgud Theatre

Sweat, Gielgud Theatre ★★★☆☆

Sweat Works Hard For Its Ill-Treated Grafters At Gielgud Theatre Sweat, Gielgud Theatre 3
Photo: Johan Persson

Sweat arrives with great acclaim, with superlative reviews and a Pulitzer already behind it. And yes, this story of a working class community being ripped apart is both timely and powerful. Yet for all of its muscular dialogue and acting, for its righteous anger, great heart and intimations of the future, Sweat leaves us a bit dry. Seeing the fury but not so much the heartache.

Photo: Johan Persson

What Sweat shows really effectively is the fall-out when the bonds between people, who for generations have worked and lived together, strain and eventually snap as the jobs dry up. Balance exists throughout — the racism on display is mostly for economic reasons. Violence is regretted and lessons are learned. It’s also very wise in its depiction of working class women, with friends Tracy, Cynia and Jessie at the play’s centre, something often missed out in depictions of blue-collar life.

Photo: Johan Persson

Set in Reading, Pennsylvania, the wall of the factory they all share serves as a constant backdrop. Sweat is rigorous (if not a bit too comprehensive) in exploring loss: Tracey and her nostalgia for her grandfather’s age of ‘well-made things’ and his strong hands; Cynthia’s myopic denial as she seeks promotion in the face of oblivion; Jessie’s moving regret for not seeing the world when a hippie teenager, Jason’s anger towards the immigrant; Chris’s hope for a future away from Reading and Brucie’s broken futility after years as a union rep.

Photo: Johan Persson

Sweat does manage to contain these themes — and more — yet perhaps in wanting to do justice to a vast subject, it spreads itself a bit too thin and the drama pays a price. People can feel more like types than characters and, with the video backdrop serving little purpose other than a timestamp, the events are perhaps a bit too rooted in recorded fact rather than imaginative exploration. Sweat tells us about the sad demise of honest labour but its reasonableness doesn’t quite get under its sweaty skin.   

Sweat, Gielgud Theatre, Shaftesbury Avenue, Soho, W1D 6AR. Tickets: £17.25 - £107.25, until 20 July 2019.

Last Updated 13 June 2019