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Sweet Charity Anne-Marie Duff (left) and Arthur Darvill (2nd right) in Sweet Charity. Photo: Johan Persson

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Sweet Charity
Book by Neil Simon; Music by Cy Coleman; Lyrics by Dorothy Fields
Donmar Warehouse, Earlham St, London WC2
Until June 8

Reviewed by Jarlath O'Connell
Published on April 23, 2019

Anne-Marie Duff is probably the only actress whose range spans Saint Joan and Charity Hope Valentine, the incurably romantic taxi dancer incarnated so well in the movie version of this by Shirley MacLaine. Her casting by director Josie Rourke, for her own swan song Donmar, is clever. Duff's age, for one, and her dramatic heft grounds the piece, giving us a far more honest portrayal of a down on her luck 'taxi dancer' than you'd ever see on Broadway. Yet it doesn't lose sight of its showbiz origins and Rourke gives this piece a much needed shot in arm.

For one thing the sexual politics of it couldn't really stand up anymore, the 'tart with the heart' concept has run out of road. The original tried to have its cake and eat it, showing us a sex worker who was defiant but then presenting her as a totally sexualised object. You could feel sorry while being turned on. Rourke cleverly usurps this. Her dancing 'girls' – all shapes, genders, races are in-your-face, reminding you what you're looking at. As hard boiled Helene tartly puts it: “What dance? Every night we defend ourselves to music”.

Apart from Cy Coleman's glorious jazz infused songs, brilliant orchestrated here by Larry Blank, the other great selling point of this show was of course Bob Fosse's choreography. By hiring Wayne McGregor, the Royal Ballet's Resident Choreographer and perhaps this country's most esteemed modern day choreographer, to restage the piece, Rourke again attempts to shake off the cobwebs.

McGregor's jagged style, all jerks, snaps and isolated movements were so opposed to the lyricism of classical ballet that he won huge fans but also alienated many. In a curious way his approach mirrored what Fosse also tried to do decades earlier to the Broadway style – it was a sort of anti-dance. In this intimate space it is easier for him to deconstruct than if he was in a huge Broadway house but he balances his innovation with a respectful nod to showbiz slickness. His use of the revolve is perfectly integrated with Robert Jones' clever design, which recreates the silver lamé excess of Andy Warhol's The Factory. There are some beautiful touches such the use of fluorescent figures in the Coney Island scene which the dancers hold while lying flat or the best use ever of a school-room overhead projector and even a box of brillo pads.

Fosse, the hard taskmaster, created this around the talents of his wife Gwen Verdon and Charity is rarely off stage, reminding you what a killer part it is. While Duff doesn't possess vocal range of others in the cast she nevertheless totally nails Charity's vulnerability and, importantly, her anguish.

In a vital ensemble Debbie Kurup and Lizzy Connolly stand out, belting divinely and totally owning the stage in duos like 'Dream Your Dream'. Arthur Darvill too is the epitome of geekiness as Oscar the 'goofball' accountant, whom Charity meets while stuck in an elevator and on whom she projects all her hopes and dreams. He nails Oscar's total self-absorption.

The great ear worm from the show is of course 'The Rhythm of Life', made famous by Sammy Davis Jr. As a gimmick they've invited a different star to do a week on the show singing the song. This week, Adrian Lester, revelled in his blinding silver sequins and totally sold it. You're on for 5 mins and steal all the applause – it has to be the best job in town.


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