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Sweat By Lynn Nottage Review | The Royal Exchange | Manchester

Lynn Nottage’s hard-hitting, Pulitzer Prize-winning play dives into the forgotten lives of factory workers in a poor town in Pennsylvania. Despite spotlighting America’s plights and premiering in 2015, the show's universal themes of friendship, loyalty and the harsh realities of being working class allow audiences to reshape the tale with Manchester’s industrial worker bees in mind.   


Recognising how financial uncertainty can quickly test a person's morals, Nottage weaves together the personal lives of seven factory floor workers whose decade-long friendships are tested when job cuts promise to leave some stripped of their identity and self-esteem. Economic uncertainty and social unrest bubble its characters to breaking point, with the distinctive space between the haves and have-nots playing out in a pub where its locals bear all. 


Sweats frank dialogue also comes from ex-offenders, Jason (Lewis Gribben) and Chris (Abdul Sessay) as their parole officer Evan (Aaron Cobham) reflects on how stumbling over personal hurdles had the domino effect of knocking their families and community down. With the eight characters stories arranged into bite-size chunks, the snapshots of their lives softly wash over you as the characters openly lay out their struggles and plans to better themselves. However, Nottage’s story is split into two timelines, starting in the 2000 Britney Spears / NCYNC era and ending with the 2008 economic crisis.  

Aaron Corban and Abdul Sessay on the set of Sweat. Photograph: Helen Murry


Within the round of the Royal Exchange, director Jade Lewis’s metal-framed design sees the cast encircle the audience, drawing you into their personal space. You may not require a crystal ball to predict their futures, but the fast-paced production’s chronicling of each person’s steep decline and the swirling set that walls in its cast will force you to confront their relentlessly rising tensions and dwarfed world.   


American Dreamer, Cynthia (Carla Henry) and the disillusioned Tracey (Pooky Quesnel) grapple as their reality and desires are shifted by powers outside of their control. Despite their clashing personalities, Henry and Quesnel bring genuine ease to the sharp and hilarious dialogue that sees one given a raise and the other let go. Both are sincere and sympathetic characters who you can empathise with regardless of whether you buy into their reasoning.  

Abdul Sessay and Lewis Gribben on the set of Sweat. Photograph: Helen Murry


Audiences are in for a rude awakening as Sweat challenges the nostalgic ideas we hold around our country, our identity and the invisible safety nets we believe are in place when we fall. The show's alcohol-fuelled conversations address issues of racism, addiction, and the decline of homegrown manufacturing to offer a brutal commentary on the real cost of economic inequality.  


Sweat is a gritty story, carried by its grounded characters and fantastic ensemble cast. Looking at breaking the self-fulfilling prophecy that poverty and shame bring, Cobham’s compelling performance helps bridge the gap between shame and community support. While Nottage’s timeless tale remains unresolved, the show offers an intense sense of hope. 

Tickets are available via the TheRoyalExchange Link

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