REVIEW: SWEET CHARITY (Donmar Warehouse) ★★★

New York, 1967. Charity Hope Valentine is a dance hall hostess who “runs her heart like a hotel – you’ve got men checking in and out all the time.” At the raw end of a long line of users and losers, she meets Oscar, a mild-mannered tax accountant, and Charity Hope Valentine once again puts her faith into love.

The ‘fickle finger of fate’ leads me to watch the matinee of this latest incarnation of ‘Sweet Charity’ during a particularly sunny London afternoon, which contrasted heavily against the stark, metallic setting of the Donmar Warehouse. Sweet Charity has been performed in numerous forms since its Broadway premier in 1966 – based on the screenplay for the Italian film ‘Nights of Cabiria’, it was adapted as a film starring Shirley Maclaine in 1969 and has appeared on Broadway and in London’s West End in several revivals during the 1980s and 90s. The setting for this latest London version by Josie Rourke is small and intimate; the audience are near to the action in the 251 seater theatre and this can feel a little close for comfort at times.

Josie Rourke reunites with Anne-Marie Duff as Charity, and Arthur Darvill makes his Donmar debut as Oscar, for her farewell production as Donmar Artistic Director, with the world-renowned Wayne McGregor updating the original Bob Fosse choreography. Duff is as impressive as ever, capturing Charity’s vulnerability and optimism and really shining in the final act where she is able to move away from the more vigorous dance numbers to do what she does best for the emotional final scenes. Darvill is impressive as Oscar, a welcome addition at the end of Act 1. Daddy Brubeck, singing in the Rhythm of Life Church scene, was played by Adrian Lester on the date of this review, this is a guest actor role which changes throughout the run, and, whilst it was a competent, if unextraordinary, performance, I had expected more sense of occasion.

The music of Cy Coleman sounds wonderful throughout, there are more catchy numbers that you expect in this show – ‘Big Spender’, ‘The Rhythm of Life’ and the eponymous ‘Sweet Charity’ performed by a relatively small band who are hidden offstage, popping up via projection only at the end of the performance to take their applause

The production is solid overall, it looks and sounds great and the performances are strong – as well as Duff and Darvill, the cast also do a good job and Nicky and Helen stand out within the wider cast. The final act is emotional and moving if a long time coming – at 2 hours and 40 minutes including a 15-minute interval this is a long show and it really feels like it. The first act feels baggy and seems to move slowly and the space also feels a little too compact for a big musical production of this type. You are all but sitting amongst the choreography and the cigarette smoke, which adds to the Warhol era aesthetic, is overwhelming in the stalls seats. By the interval, I was ready for a break, eyes stinging and head a little fuzzy, and by the end of the production the sunshine was a very welcome relief. That said, I skipped off humming a tune and thinking about poor Sweet Charity‘s poor fortune so the show definitely made an impact.

Reviewed by Ana von Dienstag
Photo: Johan Persson


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