Skeleton Crew at the Donmar Warehouse – review

Dominique Morisseau’s UK premiere runs until 24 August

Racheal Ofori in a scene from Skeleton Crew at the Donmar Warehouse
Racheal Ofori in Skeleton Crew, © Helen Murray

There’s a great tradition of plays about work that reveal as much about the stresses on society and the individual as any more domestic-based drama. From John Galsworthy’s Strife to Lynn Nottage’s Sweat, a factory setting can be revelatory.

Dominique Morisseau’s Skeleton Crew, set in a car assembly plant in her native Detroit, is an honourable addition to the ranks. It was nominated for three Tony Awards when it opened in the US in 2016, and its UK premiere reveals the power and compassion of its analysis of the weight that unfettered pursuit of profit puts on the lives of ordinary men and women.

Like Sweat, it explains the dashing of hopes of the blue-collar class in the US that forms the background of so much of today’s political scene. It does this by using the microcosm of the interactions in a break room of a factory in the midst of the 2008 recession to paint the bigger picture of the corrosive effect of financial decisions that pay no heed to the needs of the workforce.

In this rundown room, beautifully detailed in Ultz’s naturalistic set, that uses the girders and mechanics of the assembly lines as a frame for a tatty meeting place of battered lockers, coffee machines and bare tables, four Black characters meet to discuss their jobs and their lives. They’re dominated by the formidable Faye, veteran of 29-years on the line, a woman for whom a no smoking sign is a provocation rather than a disincentive.

Then there’s pregnant Shanita worrying about her weight, and anxious Dez who carries a gun to work to protect himself from the danger on the streets. And finally, affable Reggie (portrayed with harassed gentleness by Tobi Bamtefa), a foreman who is trying to balance his loyalty to his bosses and their demands with his own instinct to protect the workers under his wing.

From these characters, and the threat of imminent closure – the retention of only a skeleton crew to keep the plant going – Morisseau conjures a rich portrait of the way that people’s dreams of the better life are dashed against harsh economic reality. Although the narrative tips towards the sentimental in the play’s second part, her writing has a poise and a precision that allows the dialogue to reveal her larger themes.

It’s not just that they face joblessness. Shanita, played with wit and warmth by Racheal Ofori, has been offered other work, but she wants to feel pride in her labour. “Love the way the line needs me,” she says. “I’m building something that you can see come to life at the end. Got a motor in it and it’s gonna take somebody somewhere.”

As for Dez (Branden Cook in a terrific stage debut), work and overtime give him the chance to save for his own business, his own dream. For Faye the factory is literally a lifeline, giving her a home when everything else falls apart, a desperation that Pamela Nomvete cleverly conveys behind a bustling, tough exterior.

This emphasis on the meaning and dignity of work gives the play considerable force. Sometimes it tilts into the obvious, but its meaning lands true. When Shanita talks about the way traffic no longer merges, and everyone is out for themselves, it’s a salutary reminder of how the failings of industry and the lack of concern for anything but a profit margin, corrode and distort values in society at large. It feels like a drama for our times.

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Skeleton Crew

Final performance: 24 August 2024