Mark Ludmon reviews Josie Rourke’s production of Sweet Charity now playing the Donmar Warehouse, London.
Donmar Warehouse, London
Thanks to a string of showstoppers and Bob Fosse’s choreography, Sweet Charity is as popular as ever, with new productions at Nottingham Playhouse and Berkshire’s Watermill Theatre within the last 12 months. At the musical’s heart is the story of girl meets boy but, written by Neil Simon, this is no simple rom-com. Behind the infectious beats of the music is the grim world of dance halls where women work as “taxi-dancers”, hired out to men per dance, with some also offering themselves for “extracurricular” sex work. Pay is low and self-worth is lower, with women’s value based on how many men they can attract per night.
Some productions seek to apply a gloss to this setting, suggesting it’s all just show business, but, despite plenty of laughs, Josie Rourke’s new production makes no effort to play down the sleaze. As her name suggests, Charity Hope Valentine is a shining beacon in a cynical world, with a big heart yearning for love. After being literally dumped by her lover Charlie, she throws herself back into her life as a taxi dancer, the longest-serving hostess at the Fandango Ballroom. Her continuing efforts to find something better than this lead her to night school but, even before her first class, she ends up dating a timid tax accountant called Oscar who knows nothing about her.
With youthful vitality, Anne-Marie Duff is irresistibly likeable in the title role. Charity’s lack of self-esteem is heart-breaking, which is especially troubling when we see her offer her body to any man who shows her kindness. She doesn’t grow or change in spite of her experiences but what makes her a hero is her incredible ability to endure and rise above every disappointment, and to do it magnificently with an enviable sense of joy.
Rourke has dispensed with Fosse’s choreography to work with a modern-day dance legend, Wayne McGregor, who mixes playfulness with a de-sexualised physicality, especially in the taxi-dancers’ provocative parade to attract a “big spender”. Robert Jones draws on a 1960s aesthetic for the silvery, shimmering set and costume design, inspired by the imagery and warehouse style of Andy Warhol’s Factory (much like Ivo van Hove and designer Jan Versweyveld in another current show, All About Eve). With a nod to Bertolt Brecht’s distancing theatrical techniques, the show uses signage and letters to spell out key moments such as “A Big Decision”, while Central Park lake is cleverly represented by a giant tub of silver balls.
Like Charity’s effervescent optimism, Cy Coleman’s music and Dorothy Fields’ lyrics, under musical supervisor Gareth Valentine, transcends the bleakness with a joyful energy that puts a tingle in your fingers and a tingle in your feet. One show-stopping highlight is The Rhythm of Life, performed with limber panache by Adrian Lester – one of a roster of guests playing the pastor of an alternative acid-fuelled church congregation. There are excellent performances from the rest of the cast including Arthur Darvill as the comically anxious Oscar and Martin Marquez as Vittorio Vidal, the only man who values Charity for who she really is. Rourke and McGregor also ensure each of the taxi-dancers has their own strong identity from Lizzy Connolly as ex-con Nickie to Debbie Kurup as Helene and Danielle Steers as Carmen.
Some may criticise this production for lacking charm but Sweet Charity is far more than this. Recalling Sam Mendes’s chilling re-telling of Cabaret at the Donmar 26 years ago, Rourke exposes the grim, hopeless dance-hall world of rentable bodies but balances it with comedy and pathos, lifted by Duff’s unforgettable performance as the fragile but unbreakable Charity.
Running to 8 June 2019.