Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Northern Theatre Company return to this year’s fringe with their adaptation of the musical “Sweet Charity”. Working with the original storyline, they spin the plot on its head by changing the main characters from female to male. Set in the seedy underworld of male prostitution, hopeless romantic Charity Hope Valentine looks for true love in a heartless New York. Whilst trying to change his lifestyle, his love life takes an unexpected turn, changing the outlook of his future.
Charity works in a seedy nightclub selling his wares to customers. He has two close co-workers who support him through his precarious personal relationships. Whilst out one night he meets a famous actor, and his experience with this man leads him to believe that there is something better out there than his miserable existence. A series of haphazard coincidences introduces him to the clean living Oscar and their love blossoms, but Oscar initially doesn’t know Charity’s real occupation. When Charity reveals his past, Oscar is supportive and proposes marriage, and they begin to prepare for a life together. At the last minute, Oscar gets cold feet, unable to blot Charity’s promiscuity from his mind, and abandons him.
Northern Theatre’s director, Richard Green, makes a valid attempt to keep this play as close to the original as possible whilst incorporating the gay lifestyle, and the story actually works. The opening number of “Hey Big Spender” is sung by a chorus of rent boys offering explicit sexual gratification and the cast, often camp or in drag, play up the leather toting, village people imagery. The excellent Bob Fosse script was always intended to show the flipside of life, and provides versatile sympathetic material that captures the dry humour of the participants in the sex industry. There are interesting moments when art mirrors life, e.g. when Charity bumps into a famous actor who is supposedly heterosexual and they indulge in a homosexual kiss. The original piece depicted a secretive religious cult and this adapts well into the alternative world of an orgy, enticing young men to come out. Ultimately, Charity’s dream of a normal life and the proposal of marriage is now a credible twist in the story.
This performance has all the right ingredients for a strong story but unfortunately a very shaky cast. Appearing nervously on stage, the chorus of rent boys look decidedly uncomfortable with the task at hand. It’s not until Charity’s show stopping “If they could see me now” that even he settles into his lead role and then begins to shine. The inexperienced cast clumsily follow stage directions that at times has them bumping into each other. The singing is ropey and accompanied by a lone piano with an unpleasant timbre. Most of the action takes place in the shadow of a seedy public toilet with the urinals intrusively present during the nightclub and bedroom scenes. There’s lots of comic opportunity in the piece but the cast miss the subtlety of timing and delivery to achieve the nuances. It’s not insurmountable for these issues to be eradicated. Although they’re racing through the edited plot, the shows overall timing needs to be tightened and the discipline needed for the principal players’ vocal techniques addressed. There are also technical issues: on this occasion the whole lighting rig malfunctions, plunging the cast into darkness.
Despite these sticky moments, the homosexual Charity is appropriately cast, and is suitably matched with a convincing Oscar. The rendition of “There’s Got To Be Something Better Than This” is obviously something that the trio who performed it were enjoying, and that comes across. It’s actually a work that has a real comment to make about society, and the whole concept is a great idea. On the night I attend it’s almost a full house; the word is out that there is nudity in this piece, and it’s attended by a mixed audience of age and sexual orientation. These spectators appeared to be both people who clearly knew the original musical and were curious to see how this would work, and a more youthful element that shrieked and whooped at every kiss and sight of bare flesh as though it was the Rocky Horror Picture Show. The latter is not the responsibility of the Northern Theatre Company; it just seemed to me to be ironic.