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FringeReview UK 2019

Sweet Charity

Donmar Warehouse

Genre: American Theater, Live Music, Mainstream Theatre, Musical Theatre, Theatre

Venue: Donmar Warehouse


Low Down

Josie Rourke’s farewell to the Donmar as artistic director features her own last directed show. Designed as a silver homage to Andy Warhol by Robert Jones, choreographed by Wayne McGregor, lit by Mark Henderson. Gareth Valentine’s musical supervision of Larry Blank’s and Mark Cumberland’s orchestration pays dividends: it’s a terrific punch in a small space and thanks to Nick Lidster’s sound design (for Autograph). Finn Ross’s video projections reference Warhol.



1966 was when it all started changing. The later Sixties moved year by year, and when you come to ‘The Rhythm of Life’ in this show you feel you’re in a different musical, even a different composer, though it’s Cy Coleman’s music throughout Sweet Charity with Neil Simon’s book and Dorothy Fields’ memorably sassy lyrics.


‘The Rhythm of Life’ is but a beat away from 1967’s Hair, then Joseph and the Technicolour Dreamcoat, Jesus Christ, Superstar, Godspell. And a long way from Sweet Charity’s biggest hit, the early teasing ‘Big Spender’ reeking of the early sixties whilst dancers taunt men with angular provocation from ladders; and even the more complex ‘Where Am I Going?’ with its superbly dissonant orchestration. Or the penultimate number, Charity’s upbeat ‘I’m a Brass Band’ with Field’s references to ‘the Modern Jazz Quartet’ – MJQ the height of intellectual cool. Whilst at the same time she flicks audience members with tips of a red banner. No mistake: the music tells you the journey’s huge.


In adapting Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria director/choreographer Bob Fosse’s was inspired to darken his model: hopeful prostitute turns taxi-dancing Times-Square pink-collar worker, ever cheated, ever leaving her heart ‘a hotel, where men are always checking in and out’.


And in Josie Rourke’s farewell to the Donmar as artistic director in her own last show, there’s a feel of homecoming, nailing a work of female solidarity and resilience, where the men are bit-players at best, and always unreliable. At least two push the eponymous heroine into a lake; one grabs her grab-bag too.


Anne-Marie Duff shows here she can push her range even farther, having recently featured in rather adamantine roles: in 2017 DC Moore’s Common at the Lyttelton, Ella Hickson’s magnificent Oil at the Almeida in 2016, and back at the Donmar in 2013, Racine’s intimate Berenice. Charity is such a breakout role which is why Duff’s so good in it, rasping against stereotype as the incomparably American dream of optimism, the taxi-dancer with a no-hope job aspiring to love and – just a pinch – fortune. Here she recaptures that flickering ecstasy seen back in 2011 at the Old Vic as Alma Rattenbury, in Rattigan’s Cause Celebre.


Robert Jones designs a clever homage to Andy Warhol’s Factory: everything silver, even the back walls with a staircase and raised gantry. There’s a revolve onstage where silver sofas, silver toys, and a series of Russian-doll Brillo boxes are unpacked from huge to finger-food size unravelling the domestic dream too: just one memorable image. Another’s of Coney Island with neon towers and toy-like apparitions of the world below perched over recumbent bodies as the revolve rumbles round. Early on there’s a vast tub of polystyrene balls, that lake Charity starts from by being hurled into.


It’s newly choreographed by Wayne McGregor in a more fluid style for the Donmar’s intimacy, whilst lit with pointillistic care by Mark Henderson working with neon and dark contrasts. Gareth Valentine’s musical supervision of Larry Blank’s and Mark Cumberland’s orchestration pays dividends: it’s a terrific punch in a small space and thanks to Nick Lidster’s sound design (for Autograph) never overpowering.


Finn Ross’s video projections – often flicking through streets or multiplied projections of a film-star head (a la Warhol’s Campbell’s Soup) – add a Times Square of the mind, all lit up and nowhere to go but round.


Duff bestrides the musical with an energy that’s always ready to bounce yet manages that sudden shrink of vulnerability as Charity’s thrown into the pond by her first jilt – the thief – and chirpily gets the aiding policemen who jumped in after her, to fish out her missing shoe. And those crumples as she either relates or experiences first-hand another rejection.


There’s other registers too, Charity’s delicious moment with Martin Marquez’s svelte Italian screen-idol Vittorio Vidal: where for once she’s a tad ruthless but having secured a few keepsakes can’t bed him and hides in the closet, watching all the great make-up scene with long-term Ursula March (in Amy Ellen Richardson’s fine squalling imperiousness). Revealing her wit also reveals Charity’s essential decency. Men admire it yet move on.


Duff gets memorable support from her two friends Lizzy Connolly and Debbie Kurup, both with distinctive voices (and in ‘Baby, Dream Your Dream’ beautifully etched), and a multi-roling ensemble with Charlotte Jaconelli (vivid in contrasting cameos), Jo Eaton-Kent, Danielle Steers and Lauren Drew. Of the men, Stephen Kennedy plays grump-but-decent club-owner Herman and Vidal’s butler Manfred, and Shaq Taylor, Ryan Reid and Will Haswell blend in with the hard-working female ensemble.


An interesting casting renders a rota of the man who makes ’The Rhythm of Life’ possible, that self-styled-reverend-ish Daddy Brubeck. Adrian Lester started, and Kadiff Kirwan’s is this performance’s sequinned high-energy host. Such charisma’s benign even when the cops raid it. But history tells us what Fosse’s vision can’t: it’s Hair one way and Jim Jones the other.


Nemesis – a comparative thing for Charity – comes in the shape of nerdish Oscar Lindquist, an accounts manager with whom she gets trapped in a lift whilst on a mission to improve herself at the YMCA. Arthur Darvill’s bespectacled virgin seems to surmount his claustrophobia, fear of heights and even his fear of Charity’s experience with seeing it covertly then being led to it in that grand ’I Love to Cry at Weddings’ club send-off for Charity. And his own ‘Sweet Charity’ is properly winsome. What Darvill conveys minutely is Lindquist’s increasing discomfort the more he’s welcomed to Charity’s now ex-family. He contrasts horribly well with Charity’s truer purity.


Duff though rasps and grasps at straws of comfort memorably enough to glow – and quietly show how the lights go out. Blazing with joy in the trumpeting upbeat numbers like ‘If My Friends Could see Me Now’, she scours the lyrics of ‘Where Am I Going’ with a breaking-down of words that seems like the dream’s crumbling in her hands. What even Fosse couldn’t know was 1967. Charity’s world as she knows it is already obsolete. Here there’s no ‘and she lived hopefully ever after’ but a blackout question-mark. It’s a powerful beat.