Review: Sweet Charity, Watermill Theatre

Fun, laughs and yes, a good time. You’ll sure get a tingle in your feet for this Sweet Charity at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury

“I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see”

You can never have too much charity it would seem, and as Rebecca Trehearn prepares to take on the role of Charity Hope Valentine in Nottingham next month, Gemma Sutton tackles it here at the beautiful Watermill Theatre in Newbury. Sweet Charity, the 1966 musical by Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Neil Simon is a curious choice for the constant revival it receives. Its sexual politics are askew, its dialogue cheesily dated, and these are issues that Paul Hart’s modernised take has to occasionally battle to address.

Setting it in contemporary New York has its pros and cons. Notions of metropolitan isolation and the trials of working in a gig economy are more resonant than ever. But without lyrical updating, ideas of female aspiration remain rooted in the last century – you win some, you lose some. The casting of Sutton (so very good recently in The Rink) is a definite win though, a bright splash of colour in a mostly monochrome world and it is nigh on impossible not to be enchanted by her determination to find love in a cruel world.

The harsh realities of that world are never hidden here, Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography for the iconic ‘Big Spender’ is mechanic and angular, rather than suggesting the world of dancehall hostesses is glamorously sexualised. And dodging the misogyny where she can, the real support comes from Charity’s co-workers, a deliciously dryly witty Helene from Emma Jane Morton and a spectacularly poised and confident Nickie from Vivien Carter (a breakthrough performance for her, I’m sure of it) – their ‘Baby Dream Your Dream’ is bittersweet perfection.

Tom Self’s onstage musical direction of this actor-muso company is thrilling to listen to (almost as much as his lift acting…?), amping up the dirty brass and grinding bass of Coleman’s evergreen score. And if the funked-up take on ‘The Rhythm of Life’ maybe takes a little getting used to, the fresh approach is no bad thing. So too with Jackson Greaves’ choreography bringing vogueing into the club scenes, it’s all rather fun. And Diego Pitarch’s fine and flexible design is adroitly done, making inventive use of arches on this intimate stage.   

Alex Cardall makes for a fascinating Oscar, a scooch younger than usually played and so bringing a different dynamic to the central relationship which occasionally wavers. The final pair of scenes gets it just right though. An inspired ‘history of wedding dance routines’ piece of choreography lift the spirits giddily high after ‘I Love To Cry At Weddings’, the hope that a happy ending might actually be in store for once. And then the gut punch of Oscar’s volte-face lands with punishing power, underscored by a pungent reminder of how all-too-easily society turns its head away from violence against women rather than deal with it head on. 

Hart leaves us with the scant solace that there is strength in sisterhood, but also that that strength needs to come from inside. A perfectly judged slow fade to black rightly lends to a ruminative moment of silence before the applause, a welcome reminder that for all the showtunes here, there’s a sadness too that shouldn’t be denied. A bold attempt to move a classic musical into contemporary times. 

Running time: 2 hours 35 minutes (with interval)
Photos: Philip Tull
Sweet Charity is booking at the Watermill Theatre until 15th September.
NB Newbury train station is undergoing all sorts of electrification work and so will be closed at random points over the summer – check here for details

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