Review – Sweet Charity, Donmar Warehouse

Wednesday 10 April 2019

Hurrah. At last. A proper musical.

Some of us are old enough to remember that 1966 was not only the year of a particular World Cup but also when Sweet Charity emerged. Those were the days, when people really knew what a hummable tune was.

Can you imagine Come From Away or especially Fun Home winning Olivier Awards and Tony Awards five decades ago? No, we can’t either. And Dear Evan Hansen may be fabulously tune-filled but at the prices it’s charging we will probably never know. Don’t be fooled that the “Dear” of the title is just a form of address. We’d welcome a little less ambiguity and suggest they call it Expensive Evan Hansen.

But we digress. This is a show which positively aches with catchy numbers in Cy Coleman‘s music (enhanced by and Dorothy Fields‘ lyrics) – “Big Spender”, “If My Friends Could See Me Now”, “There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”, “I’m A Brass Band” and “I Love To Cry At Weddings”.

And then there’s Phil’s favourite, “The Rhythm Of Life” which in Josie Rourke‘s farewell show at the Donmar was performed by Shaq Taylor but will be performed by a different “name” each week, including Adrian Lester, Le Gateau Chocolat, Clive Rowe and Beverley Knight.

Amazingly Charity lost the Best Musical Tony Award to Man of La Mancha. In fact it only won one of its nine nominations. The win was for Bob Fosse’s choreography.

Uncharitable We doubt the choreography here will be winning any awards, although it may seem a tad unfair to beat Wayne McGregor with the Fosse stick. Looking down on it from our side seats in the circle the dancing struggled to address the three sides of the thrust stage, despite a stage revolve and frankly looked a bit rough around the edges. Preview performance blah, blah, blah.

Uncharitable But then the whole show looks a bit rough. Robert Jones has chosen to make the set as wilfully unattractive as possible by wrapping much of it in Bacofoil though he clearly ran out of it before he finished wrapping up the pillars. When we reached the “I’m A Brass Band” number Phil wondered if some of the costumes had been salvaged from a skip.

Uncharitable Let’s try and forget the half dozen step ladders which are shifted around rather awkwardly and utilised sometimes quite perplexingly. Phil is considering adding them to his list of other theatrical bêtes noires; park benches, balloons and shopping trollies. Oh and since you asked, balloons do feature. Big silver helium-filled letter balloons. We recently flagged up this peculiar new theatrical trend for outsized silver balloons here and here.

Charitable Charity Hope Valentine is a dancer-for-hire at the Fandango Ballroom looking for love rather than charging for it. In the opening scene we see her not only dumped by a boyfriend, but dumped into New York’s Central Park lake. The lake is represented here by something resembling an Ikea ball pit. Mmmm. In the course of the show we see her almost spend the night with a film star Vittorio Vidal (winningly played by Martin Marquez), and falling for a painfully shy, claustrophobia sufferer Oscar Lindquist (Arthur Darvill – amusingly geeky).

Uncharitable Phil struggled to warm to Anne-Marie Duff. She lacks the vulnerable charm and innocence of a classic Charity, is more mature than previous Charitys and has a singing voice that suggests why we’d not seen her in a musical before. Perhaps it is unfair on A-MD that Phil once saw Shirley MacLaine in concert performing “If My Friends Could See Me Now”. And since he’s name dropping shamelessly he also saw Sammy Davis Jr doing “The Rhythm Of Life” live too.

Charitable Whinger-approved, seasoned musical performers Lizzy Connolly and Debbie Kurup pick up some of the musical slack as Charity’s dance hall chums.

Uncharitable Though they’re saddled with the lesser known “Baby, Dream Your Dream” and are forced to perform it whilst unpacking large Brillo pad boxes (there are several Warhol references in the show) which sit inside each other like Matryoshka dolls. No, we didn’t get it either. Something to do with with the repetition of domesticity or the diminishing returns of this production?

Charitable The book is by Neil Simon.

Charitable The band under Gareth Valentine’s direction is very good and suitably brassy when it needs to be. The sound balance ensures the lyrics can be heard. Hurrah!

Charitable  The show briefly bursts into life at the end with “I Love To Cry At Weddings”. Watch out for Darvill providing a comedy highlight as he unsuccessfully tries to fit in with the celebrations.

Uncharitable It may seem unfair to show how “Rich Man’s Frug” was done in the brilliant 1969 film but we’ll do it since it’s unlikely you’ll be able to get a ticket now anyway.

Uncharitable

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