Skeleton Crew at the Donmar Warehouse review: a beautifully observed, vivid slice of American life

Branden Cook and Tobi Bamtefa in Skeleton Crew (Helen Murray)
Branden Cook and Tobi Bamtefa in Skeleton Crew (Helen Murray)

Four black employees struggle to get by at a Detroit car factory as the auto industry and the city it supports collapse around them in Dominique Morriseau’s easygoing play. It’s a beautifully-observed, well-made comedy drama about hardscrabble existence, and Matthew Xia directs a fine cast with laid-back assurance.

If you come to it cold you’ll have a splendid time. If you’ve seen either Sweat or Clyde’s, both by Lynn Nottage and both mounted at the Donmar, you might get a sense of déjà vu and of slight disappointment, as they explored similar territory – albeit in a Pennsylvania setting – in more depth.

Anyway, there’s plenty to enjoy here, not least the way Morrisseau captures the functional intimacy and (mostly) good-natured rancour of workplace relationships.

Cocky young Dez (Branden Cook) works on the assembly line every day with feisty veteran Faye (Pamela Nomvete). They play cards for cash in the break room, he chides her for smoking, but is stumped when she asks if he knows the name of her son.

The script also neatly tracks the way routine incrementally changes as life gets more pinched. Queenly, pregnant Shanita (Racheal Ofori) becomes increasingly preoccupied with her home-prepared food, her dreams, and Dez’s flirtation.

Pamela Nomvete, Branden Cook, Tobi Bamtefa and Racheal Ofori in Skeleton Crew (Helen Murray)
Pamela Nomvete, Branden Cook, Tobi Bamtefa and Racheal Ofori in Skeleton Crew (Helen Murray)

Supervisor Reggie, whose mother was apparently Faye’s lover, has made it into middle management and home ownership: caught between his bosses and his vulnerable friends, he resorts to sticking up increasingly passive-aggressive notices about gambling and smoking.

A lot here is nicely understated or simply not mentioned. We learn nothing about the father of Shanita’s baby, little about Faye’s love life (except that she “be macking on the ladies”). In what might be a Chekhovian in-joke, a gun comes to represent the decline of Detroit, even though it’s never used. The shared desperation seems all the more poignant for lying just below the surface.

The language has an authentic industry tang – “stamping doors”, “fitting shocks”, losing “a good eighth of sheet metal off the machine lot”. Ultz’s set, too, looks realistic enough to be sticky, with its snot-green fridge and warped ceiling tiles.

There’s even an assembly line above the stage that only punters in the circle can see, and the soundtrack includes the machinery-inflected mixes of Detroit producer J Dilla.

The slow-burn romance between Dez and imperious Shanita is elegantly performed, with Ofori bearing her neat baby bump like a galleon under sail. It’s a pleasure to watch Tobi Bamtefa’s subtle exploration of Reggie’s suppressed frustration, rage and sadness.

Novete’s Faye is ostensibly the play’s emotional centre but she has the hardest task as the character hardly ever modulates her tough-talking fierceness.

The play arguably comes to a too-neat conclusion. But this is a vivid slice of American life addressing a situation in which millions find themselves worldwide, and a thoroughly entertaining night out.

Donmar Warehouse, to August 24;