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Review: Skeleton Crew (Donmar Warehouse)

Review by Sam Waite




Born and raised in Detroit, Michigan, a significant portion of Dominique Morisseau’s output as a playwright is her Detroit Project, made up of three plays set in her home city. The third entry, Skeleton Crew, began its life off-Broadway in 2016, before moving six years later to Broadway, where the play itself received a Tony Award nomination, and actress Phylicia Rashad won a Tony for her performance. Skeleton Crew, in a new production directed by Matthew Xia, is now playing at London’t Donmar Warehouse, marking both Xia and Morisseau’s debuts at the venue.


Set in 2008, the story plays out entirely in the break room of one of Detroit’s last remaining car factories, where layoffs are becoming more frequent amidst rumours that they too will close their doors before the year is over. With most of the remaining employees opting to eat in their cars to get away from the noise and dust of the assembly lines, the break room is largely the domain of long-time worker Faye, but young co-workers Dez and Shanita spend their mornings and lunches there with her. Reggie, their foreman and a childhood friend of Faye’s son, is growing increasingly firm in the staff following the rules, which seems to be an uphill struggle.


A Black woman from Detroit, Morisseau writes dialogue that is entirely natural to the environment, where all four characters we see are Black, working-class citizens of the city. The first line spoken, “Cold then a b**** today, ain’t it?” (as printed in the published text) makes it immediately clear that it’s up to us to get to grips with the vocabulary and background of the crew members, rather than to Morisseau to water down her characters for our sakes. The quartet of characters have distinct, vivid personalities, and their relationships with each other have clearly blossomed over time, seeming wholly natural even though the group have staggering differences. Morisseau writes a controlled, clear pace, careful to keep a degree of slice-of-life to the individual scenes, while carefully intensifying the threat of closure alongside implications of struggles the team are having outside of work.


Much like recent Donmar production Clyde’s, the workplace is largely united by the eldest and longest-serving employee, in this case the sharp-tongued and maternal Faye. Pamela Nomvete balances the character’s motherly tendencies – she all but raised Reggie, and helped him get his job – with her rough-around-the-edges charm, a real working-class girl through and through. Nomvete carries herself around the stage as if she owns it, much like Faye considers the break room her own private space, and this confidence bleed into every moment of the performance, collapsing magnificently in an eventual admission of helplessness that is all the more heart-breaking for the strength and assuredness Nomvete has portrayed.


Shanita, played by Rachael Ofori, feels at first as though she may be secondary to everything going on around her, but proves to be invaluable to the overarching narrative. A young, pregnant woman so devoted to her work, finding genuine importance in it that she turns away more solid opportunities, Ofori plays the role with such an earnest, bright-eyed quality that it’s impossible to truly hold this lack of foresight against her. Meanwhile Reggie, as played by Tobi Bamtefa, clearly wants to be a no-nonsense leader and impress his superiors, but is ultimately just someone trying and sometimes failing to do his best. Bamtefa plays exasperation well, and digs into Reggie’s more emotional moments, where his loyalty to the workers becomes more apparent, but is also more firmly tested by the requirements of his position.


In his debut not just at the Donmar, but on a professional theatre stage, Branden Cook excels as the wilful, frequently-disciplined Dez. In less capable hands, Dez could drift into being a ne’er-do-well stereotype, a young Black man who feels he has to carry a firearm to be safe, and whose misadventures with friends sound as if they could be less than legitimate. Cook, however, brings a great deal of heart and youthful idealism to the role – where the gun and the implications of misdeeds do point towards darker truths, Cook’s Dez seems less like a common criminal, and more like a young man who is a product of the world around him. He can also be incredibly charming, whether in his shameless flirting with Shanita, or in his mocking but affectionate treatment of all three colleagues.


Xia, an Olivier nominee and the director of last year’s controversial Tambo & Bones is no stranger to challenging subjects, from minstrelsy to medical exploitation, from life-threatening conditions to badge-wearing canines. Here, he keeps a balance of emotions throughout – rarely are two characters emotionally heightened at the same time, and their dynamics onstage reflect that. Xia’s direction also makes strong use of the space to deepen the characters, with Dez and particularly Shanita having parts of the room they will most frequently inhabit, while Reggie will more often stand central and up-front, as if a teacher giving important lessons, and long-timer Faye will inhabit the entirety of the space within a scene, free to move where she pleases within her domain. Indeed, so lived-in and relatable are the characters’ morning and lunch time routines, that the sometimes too-long stretches between any major step forward in the story remain entirely watchable, an unnecessary but wholly pleasant way to spend an extra few minutes.

Set design from ULTZ is simple but incredibly effective, this being an ordinary break room that should be familiar to many, regardless of where they’re from. The tightly-condensed kitchen area, cafeteria-style seating, and row of lockers by the door, all help the place to feel lived-in and used, particularly the kind of sofa that seems a bit too padded, obviously not intended to be sat on for long stretches comfortably, but also is probably half-broken and bedded in by constant use. Around the lip of the Donmar stage is a black and yellow caution marker, informing the audience before they take their seats that the play is set around potentially dangerous work areas, which couples nicely with a moment where the pounding machinery is joined by a shower of sparks from above.


Nicola T. Chang provides hip-hop influenced beats which blend with the machinery, bringing to life Shanita’s insistence that the sounds of the factory are a form of music, and expressing the J Dilla influence explicit in the play’s text. Chang’s sound design also impressively shifts the placement of sound on some occasions, as a song played out-loud through the auditorium seems at once to be coming only from the small portable stereo in the front corner, particularly effective when a suspiciously-early Faye has a joyous time preparing for her day to the sounds of “I Say a Little Prayer.” Ciarán Cunningham’s lighting is also well-used, with light lingering over points of interest as the break room lights fade away in the evenings, and particularly jarring moment towards the end happening largely in the darkness until we are suddenly all but blinded by the abrasive overhead lighting. Where used for effect the lighting is almost mystical, while it – like the sound accompanying it – is industrial and almost too harsh when no longer a metaphor, bringing to life how oppressive the crew’s workplace can feel.

With a great deal of love, care, and talent behind it, Skeleton Crew is a welcome addition to the Donmar Warehouse’s history, and hopefully will be able to follow other recent productions in transferring elsewhere. A human story with characters who feel utterly authentic, Morisseau’s work is personal, deeply felt, and deserving of ever-growing audiences. Without giving anything away, there are notes of hopefulness and looking to a brighter future to the bittersweet final scenes, and this combination of realism and willingness to dream of bigger and better things is entirely welcome, and frankly necessary in a world that can be so cruel.


Skeleton Crew plays at the Donmar Warehouse until August 24th



Photos by Helen Murray

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