Skeleton Crew

Dominique Morisseau
Donmar Warehouse
Donmar Warehouse

Listing details and ticket info...

Pamela Nomvete as Faye, Branden Cook as Dez, Tobi Bamtefa as Reggie and Racheal Ofori as Shanita Credit: Helen Murray
Branden Cook as Dez and Tobi Bamtefa as Reggie Credit: Helen Murray
Racheal Ofori as Shanita and Branden Cook as Dez Credit: Helen Murray
Tobi Bamtefa as Reggie and Pamela Nomvete as Faye Credit: Helen Murray
Pamela Nomvete as Faye and Tobi Bamtefa as Reggie Credit: Helen Murray
Racheal Ofori as Shanita Credit: Helen Murray

Dominique Morisseau’s 2016 play, one of a trilogy set in working-class Detroit and now getting its UK première deftly directed by Matthew Xia, takes place in the break room of a car factory. It is 2008, and what was once the booming heart of the US car industry is now in terminal decline. This is the last car plant in operation and it is scheduled for closure, though the management have kept that from the workforce.

Ultz’s setting has a kitchen corner with sink, fridge, microwave and coffee-maker and a row of a couple of dozen lockers, but we meet only three of the workers from the production line and their supervisor. There must be more, but this skeleton crew emphasises how precarious their jobs are and how many must have already been “let go”.

Dez (Branden Cook) has an eye on the future. He plans to start his own business but needs to top up his savings before he can go ahead. He’s rather keen on co-worker Shanita (Racheal Ofori); he walks her to her car every day. She’s pregnant, but a hard worker who takes pride in having an essential role in the manufacturing process. She’s hoping the bosses will recognise her skill and transfer her to another good job.

Faye (Pamela Nomvete) has worked there for 29 years and needs to chalk up another year, because that will make a big difference to her pension. She is the union rep for their group, a bit of a mother hen, even towards their supervisor Reggie, to whose mother she used to be very close. Faye is a lesbian and, more noticeably, a nicotine addict, breaking the no-smoking rules despite Reggie’s reminders and the others' concern for her health. Reggie (Tobi Bamtefa), was promoted from worker to foreman. He already knows about the coming closure, but he’s been told in confidence, if he toes the line he will almost certainly be found a job elsewhere, but he does tell Faye who urges him to fight for their rights.

Playwright Morisseau has an excellent ear for the vernacular, with poetic touches and a strong cast create convincing relationships between these co-workers. Though they are all likeable characters and a thread of gentle humour about whether Shanita is resorting to a book of African names for her baby or Faye joking then spraying air freshener; at first there is little action or sense involvement until one revelation sets up expectations. However, there’s a strong sense of impending drama in the music and lighting which links scenes, a brilliant simulacrum of the pounding machines that stamp out the car parts.

After the interval, the drama that ends the first act moves up several notches as we learn more of Faye’s situation, Shanita touchingly recounts a dream about having her baby and Reggie comes back after confronting the bosses. Bamtefa’s passionate playing and Nomvete’s performance are worth waiting for. Xia now lets the brake off his controlled production and gives us fireworks.

Skeleton Crew presents a specific group of black workers at a time of economic collapse, but what is here so specific has been widely replicated, not least in the UK. The loss of employment as key industries disappear and the dilemma of those who must choose between self-interest and worker solidarity could be anywhere in the industrialised world.

Reviewer: Howard Loxton

*Some links, including Amazon, Stageplays.com, Bookshop.org, ATG Tickets, LOVEtheatre, BTG Tickets, Ticketmaster, LW Theatres and QuayTickets, are affiliate links for which BTG may earn a small fee at no extra cost to the purchaser.

Are you sure?