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Review: Clyde's (Donmar Warehouse)

Review by Sam Waite


An adage linked to numerous sources says, “Hurt people hurt people.” This idea is used in abundance for the title character of Clyde’s, Lynn Nottage’s triumphant return to the Donmar Warehouse, where she is reunited with Lynette Linton – the Donmar’s former Resident Artistic Director, and who helmed Nottage’sSweat both at the Donmar and in a West End transfer.

Clyde’s is set entirely in the titular greasy spoon's kitchen, where a quartet of line cooks toil away to please their mean-spirited, sharp-tongued boss. A felon herself, Clyde is free to treat her staff without an ounce of respect, both sides of the arrangement knowing that their previous incarcerations, and the associated offences, make it next to impossible to find work elsewhere. Newcomer Jason arrives to replace a former coworker, bringing a closed off persona and extremist face tattoos, and his getting to know his eccentric colleagues doubles as ours.

Reuniting from the National Theatre production of Blues For An Alabama Sky are Giles Terera and Ronkẹ Adékoluẹjo, in drastically different roles. Where that production found Terera living for a seemingly hopeless dream, his work here is measured and relaxed, portraying Montrellous as a man who has long since made peace with a lack of prospects – his fiery drive comes to the surface only when incensed by Clyde’s refusals to improve the place and its standing. Adékoluẹjo, mousy and understated in Alabama Sky, is a joy to watch as she plays Tish’s every word and gesture as brash and grandly extroverted. Her being the only cook tk she'd tears at a pivotal monologue isn't because she's the only girl in the kitchen, but because she's so firmly established as wearing not just her heart, but her mind and very soul, on her sleeve.

Rafael, the good-natured, immature “sous-chef” of Clyde’s is brought to life with sparkling comic timing and boyish charm by Sebastian Orozco. His work is a careful balancing act, presented Rafael fully as both the annoying younger brother of this makeshift family, and an emotionally intelligent confidante for Tish when she struggles to care for her unwell child. Newcomer Jason is played with obvious confusion at the group’s antics and a carefully guarded warmth by Patrick Gibson, who makes the defensiveness feel genuine without being so blunt as to have the troubling tattoos put us off from the outset.

Completing the crew is Clyde herself, a boisterous and uninhibited Gbemisola Ikumelo. On paper, she is the most one-note of the characters, being a stock “cruel boss” villain – this is where Ikumelo’s ability to play the nuances becomes essential, with Clyde's bravado being just noticeable enough as artificial that we know there's more to her behaviour before anything can be revealed. Swaggering and commanding, her Clyde keeps an undercurrent of strain and of needing things to keep going well even while she sneers and deliberately works against her staff.

Nottage’s leaning into stereotypical characters – the needlessly nasty boss, the wise older black man, the young would-be lothario – feels like a deliberate choice, rather than a flaw in her script. By presenting us with the most familiar, broadly written version of each role, she allows room for the nuances and subtleties to be mined throughout the evening, subverting the expectation her own sitcom-like setup implies. Her dialogue is sparkling and witty, the characters bantering back and forth and their metaphorical pondering son the ideal sandwich, though occasionally repetitive, laced with meaning even before we come to know and love the characters.

An obvious match for her collaborator, Linton’s direction varies between the broad, sitcom-style presentation of the earliest scenes, and more carefully observed, more loosely structured moments of genuine connection. Frankie Bradshaw has designed a characterful, realistic kitchen set which Linton uses beautifully to keep characters in motion both literally and emotionally, using the cooking stations and equipment as obstacles between the characters or, when called for, visual nods to how well they complement one another. The choice to utilise real food, including a working grill at the back of the stage, helps to add smell and almost taste into a full sensory assault, with George Dennis’s sound design turning ordinary workplace sounds into repetitive omens of another day passing with no hope for a better future.

A well-acted ensemble piece that isn't interested in beating its audience over the head with its themes, Clyde's allows us to see this quintet grow both as workers and as people over an indeterminate length, allowing us to ponder whether they deserve better or not. Where rehabilitation and betterment of self are central the characters' arcs, Nottage is clearly aware of how complicated these matters can be – what he offers us is not a clear right or wrong, but a delectable 100 minutes with an interesting, varied group of people whose situations introduce thought, discussion, and the necessity of valuing their humanity.

Clyde’s plays at the Donmar Warehouse until December 2nd.

For tickets and information visit

Photos by Marc Brenner



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