Review: NO SWEAT

IN BRIEF Bleak, effective youth homelessness drama simmers angrily in moving production

Just occasionally, a show comes from out of the blue to highlight something which for some reason has gone under our collective radar. NO SWEAT was born out of the untold, unseen homelessness crisis in the LGBTQ+ community. Why unseen? Because so many use 24-hour gay saunas as a place of rest and refuge from the harsh realities of the world outside. In a venue where being gay is “the norm”, it may appear to some quite seductive to think of these places as a refuge. However, the sexualised environment leads many to selling sex to survive, which can also lead to drugs. These traps that many vulnerable young gay people fall into are unforgiving and highly damaging.

NO SWEAT tells the stories of three young men who take refuge in FLEX, a London gay sauna. Charlie, the Pakistani asylum seeker who cleans the place for a pittance; and customers Alf, a Welsh body-for-hire and naïve, numb newcomer Tristan. All three having fled from parental rejection and ejection from the family homes, with no means to support themselves.

As their stories and experiences are shared, what is also revealed is the desperation and loneliness of these young men, each at the mercy of others to survive. Forced into “survival sex working”, Alf educates Tristan in how to exist in this new world of 24-hour heat, where they are part of the majority – but still outsiders.

The three men form their own bonds and supportive gestures which bring a genuine humanity to the show and make the central dilemma of these forgotten people all the more moving. Drugs seem to follow sex in a cycle of desperation and numbness.

The performances are all of a high standard. Gentle, romantic and caring Charlie is played with delicate grace by Manish Gandhi, a sweet and generous soul in a country that doesn’t want him.

Cocky, superficially sorted Alf is played with brittle bravado by James Haymer. Denholm Spurr as Tristan gently takes his character from naïve to more knowing, but retaining a genuine helplessness, so that when he says “I don’t really know what I am doing”, its meaning becomes amplified – a strangled cry for help.

The authorities which should be helping are portrayed as doing worse than nothing- an utter failure of care. “Is this a joke?” asks Tristan at the end of his interview for assistance; those unseen forces charged with helping display a lack of respect, willpower and joined-up thinking as well as prejudice of all colours. It is a genuine slap-in-the face moment for characters and audience.

Unfortunately the ending is not a happy one, and the sadness of these lives, damaged through no fault of their own, is mixed with anger at the lack of any kind of effective lines of help for them.

Vicky Moran’s sensitive play, combining a wealth of original research, mixes the dramatic and audio interview clips with real people (which cover the lengthy scene changes) to good effect, but I did feel that the changes rather distracted my attention away from the audio. The piece undoubtedly benefits from Moran’s own direction, and she has fostered telling performances from the cast.

There is some brief nudity in the show, but I felt this rather cleverly underlined the vulnerability rather than providing any genuinely erotic content.

The only decision which didn’t quite work for me was that of asking the actors to be their own inquisitor at their interviews with authority figures, with the actors turning from side to side to represent different voices. I thought that perhaps another unseen voice (on audio) might have better captured the hardness and inhumanity of questioning, and would also have freed up the actors to maintain their carefully-crafted characterisations. However, these are small points.

As a radical call to provide properly for abused and abandoned young people, this is an important and urgent piece of theatre; both producer and writer should be thanked for bringing these issues to a wider attention. One can only hope that this spurs people to action.

Vicky Moran is definitely a writer/director to watch keenly. I also notice that the show’s producer Reece McMahon is a part of the excellent Roundhouse Future Producers scheme. I am excited to see what’s next for both of them.

NO SWEAT played at The Pleasance Theatre Downstairs (London) to February 29th


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