mon 15/07/2024

Skeleton Crew, Donmar Warehouse review - slow burn that satisfyingly catches fire | reviews, news & interviews

Skeleton Crew, Donmar Warehouse review - slow burn that satisfyingly catches fire

Skeleton Crew, Donmar Warehouse review - slow burn that satisfyingly catches fire

A fine cast spell out the cost of survival in today's ailing industries

Running on soul: Pamela Nomvete as Faye, the troubled union repImages - Helen Murray

For a long stretch of its first half, Dominique Morrisseau’s 2016 award-winner, Skeleton Crew, seems a conventional workplace drama, though in a much gentler key than Lynn Nottage’s Sweat. But this slow burn catches fire.

The first sign that this is not a lightly comedic tale of an endangered urban workforce comes when a young worker called Dez (Branden Cook, pictured below, bottom right)) produces a handgun from his backpack and stashes it in his padlocked locker in the break room. But again, this is not Chekhov. The gun will not fire.

Dez’s place of work is an ailing car assembly line, its staff stretched thin, its invisible bosses treating them like sums on a shrinking spreadsheet. Outside in Motortown, industries are dying, mortgage-defaulters are being made homeless, crime is rising. Inside, the three workers are under the supervision of Reggie (Tobi Bamtefa, pictured below, right), a bear of a man seeking to make his mark in a job that requires him to wear a suit, a novelty in his family. HIs stature conceals his insecurity.

Ranged against him are Faye, the stalwart union rep (Pamela Nomvete), who has worked for the company for almost 30 years; languid, secretive Dez, who is saving up to open a motor repair shop of his own; and Shanita (Racheal Ofori), a willowy young mother-to-be trying to stay healthy on homemade salads, who slowly makes her voice heard. 

Tobi Bamfete as Reggie in Skeleton Crew We watch as the trio josh and spar, hugely enjoying Reggie’s increasingly frantic creation of homemade signs for the noticeboards, warning them by name to curb their excesses – smoking, gambling, stealing company property, plain old making a mess. “You see your mama here? NO. Then clean up your mess yourself” is the gist of one of them.

The most blatant offender is world-weary Faye, who has surreptitious smokes during the day. Reggie is in a quandary when he tries to deal with her, as she was his late mother’s closest friend. Faye has supported him along his way into the supervisor job, but now he is caught between her and his bosses, who may be planning to close the plant. Already he is becoming anxious that he is "disappearing from himself”. He tells Faye about the impending closure, but swears her to secrecy until the time is right to tell her members. Nomvete plays her as a hugely likeable toughie, but also a woman struggling with a series of deep losses that have left her on the brink, as becomes painfully clear. She is “running on soul”, she tells Reggie, “the only thing left with fuel in it.”

The wild card here is Shanita, who looks like she should be getting modelling work but has joined the car plant delighted to be making something tangible, something with a future. She is by all accounts really skilled at the work, too, almost in love with the machines. Dez is already smitten with her and tries to find out about her “baby-father”, a subject she won’t discuss. Together they are the skeleton crew the company needs to keep the line running until its orders are completed. 

So far, so TV drama. But the theatricality of the piece slowly revs up, along with its plot. The austere set sits in an unadorned auditorium whose back wall and delivery doors remain undisguised, so that the viewer is always reminded that this is a stage set within a theatre. Suddenly the pipework on one side pours out steam; sparks spit down from the machinery. Things turn truly menacing during scene changes, when the plant clanks and grinds, the lighting flickers and a drum-driven soundtrack takes over. What is actually outside this room? It seems to be a hellish vision of the modern industrial machine: will the staff be consumed by it?

Racheal Ofori as Shanita in Skeleton CrewDown below, the quartet are slowly being thrown together by their impending redundancy, and secrets start to spill out. In these gentler moments we hear the comforting rhythms of Aretha Franklin’s "Say a Little Prayer" and "Angel". Faye, whose locker sports a photo of Mohammed Ali, heroically girds her loins to fight for the staff’s rights; Reggie girds his to battle the bosses for good severance packages for the staff, along lines that Faye tutors him in. A stop-and-search policy has been instituted, and a showdown is inevitable.

The cast handle this quotidian material, through which big thorny issues start to poke, with impressive control and poise. None of them is American, yet they create believable Detroit people with authentic accents and mannerisms, and slowly steal your heart. Ofori (pictured above left) gives a standout performance as Shanita: a new generation of Detroiter, proud of her work, a principled and concerned citizen who still believes in the American Dream, yet drily funny and delighted to be bringing a baby into the world, however bleak its prospects. Ofori has mastered the rise and fall of US urban speech, with its almost comical high-voiced question-mark at the top of a sentence. The scene where she and Dez hold hands, eyes closed, listening to their version of the music of the spheres – the whirrs and hums from the assembly line floors – is a lovely balance of sweetness and sadness.

Branden Cook as Dez in Skeleton CrewIs there really an assembly line outside the break-room door, or is this little stage world God’s waiting room: a metaphor for the upheavals and privations of modern life and how beleaguered ordinary people – the skeleton crew left behind by modernity’s embrace of the new – find the resources to weather them? The writing leaves that for the staging to suggest. But the piece becomes too bulky at times, needing fewer big speeches. Shanita, for one, has far too many “significant" dreams to report, and Reggie’s climactic outburst, which can’t decide where to end, seems unduly tough for Bamtefa to deliver. 

Matthew Xia’s intelligent direction gets the best from the text and this fine cast. The play has a message for today, pinpointed by Shanita, whose drive to work has given her a key insight: “People don’t know how to merge.” 

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