At turns kinetic, overindulgent, and galvanising, Clyde’s marks a boisterous yet tender return to familiar territory for Lynn Nottage.
In the past five years, the kitchen has asserted itself as the ideal arena to explore a bevy of themes from class anxiety and subsistence living to artistic suffering and self-love. At once intimate yet universal, food and the site of its preparation have long been analogised in every medium from film and television to the novel—most recently in the HBO phenomenon The Bear and Michelle Zauner’s chart-topping memoir Crying at H-Mart. While using food as a route to connection certainly isn’t a new phenomenon (in fact, it may just be the oldest way of showing affection in the book), Lynn Nottage proves that her kitchen will never go out of style.
Clyde’s takes us back to Reading, Pennsylvania: the bygone coal town of Nottage’s second Pulitzer Prize-winning play Sweat. With spectacular realism and empathy, director Lynette Linton and designer Frankie Bradshaw—both also revisiting Reading after their award-winning staging of Sweat in 2019, place us in the manic galley of a truck-stop diner most wouldn’t give a second glance to. Among its staff are ex-cons Letitia, Jason, Raphael, and Montrellous (Monty) who, despite endless discouragement and harassment by their abusive, irascible boss—the eponymous Clyde (Gbemisola Ikumelo), try valiantly to make cooking more than just their livelihoods.
Clyde’s characters form the archetypal motley crew: fiery single mum Letitia (Ronkẹ Adékọluẹ́jọ́) works tirelessly to provide for her sick daughter; Raphael (Sebastian Orozco) craves community and a sense of purpose; Monty (Giles Terera) just wants to cook and teach while doing it; and Jason (Patrick Gibson) is learning to take responsibility instead of shifting blame. Overworked and underpaid, they find community over crafting the perfect sandwich—”the most democratic of foods.” Of course, with every order comes a new revelation: Letitia’s home life may be darker than expected, Raphael must fight as not to relapse, Monty’s disciplined and optimistic worldview may be in danger of collapsing, and Jason’s anger is always close to boiling over.
However, while Nottage excels in conjuring the familiar atmosphere of this decaying Rust-Belt town, her characters fail to make it off the page with a similar fidelity. This is not so much a flaw of the cast as it is of Nottage’s script. In fact, Linton’s cast brings an urgent earnesty to their characters’ unique experiences, rendering their every detail honestly and honouring their complexity. Adékọluẹ́jọ́’s Letitia is as pensive and anxious as she is exuberant. Ikumelo’s Clyde is a paradigm of resentment after one too many burns. While Clyde’s cast enlivens their characters with incredible empathy and nuance, Nottage’s script generally fails to plumb the same depths as her previous work.
The play seems to follow the classic set-up for a melodrama: introducing a crew of distinct characters, each with their own secrets to be revealed over the course of the play (in this case: why they were incarcerated, what factors led them to commit their crimes, and what future they imagine for themselves). While each character has an incredibly important backstory, their development often seems shoe-horned into the plot through indulgent exposition and oddly-timed confessions.
Clyde herself is the most striking example of abandoned characterisation: ever the tormenting presence, her character’s development is elided in favour of a familiar trope. We only get one monologue from Clyde before we are left to guess whether she has fundamentally changed. While this ambiguity would work with other characters such as Jason—whose character development is embraced despite his violent and racist history, when Clyde is the character whose development is left (quite literally) in the dark, the play’s loyalties seem split.
Wrapping up everyone’s story so easily—except for, arguably, the play’s most interesting character, puts Linton and Bradshaw’s meticulous production design at odds with Nottage’s coddling script. Perhaps with twenty more minutes under its belt, Clyde’s would have explored its characters in more depth and with more grace, but ultimately, it is a joy to witness Nottage return to the West End. Her vision of friendship in the workplace, food as medicine, and the joys of found family prevail and, despite at times spoon-feeding its audience, Clyde’s is a joyful and lively feast for all.