There’s no doubt Josie Rourke wants her Donmar swansong to be a blow-out party piece: so much so, in fact, Robert Jones’s set is inspired by the ultimate hangout joint – Andy Warhol’s Factory. And this silver foil-clad and step-ladder-obsessed Sweet Charity shares more than just the aesthetic of the artist’s studio and elite social club. Dig deeper and you’ll discover some of Pop Art’s nihilistic despair, too. For while this inventive production has buckets of razzle-dazzle and some walloping tunes, there remains an icky oppressiveness at its core.
Rourke’s production of the 1966 musical, with music by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields and book by Neil Simon, originally directed by Bob Fosse, gives us Anne-Marie Duff, a performer seeming incapable of being anything other than fascinating – even when delivering weird pseudo-historical dialogue to a half-empty Olivier in the bonkers Common – as Charity Hope Valentine. The character has been elevated from prostitute to table dancer and Duff, with her quirks and confidence, makes the perfect gutsy but vulnerable quick-witted New York broad, who’s as easy to like as she is to deceive.
It’s an actorly performance. Duff delves into deep wells of vulnerability that give Charity dimensions beyond the paper-thin plot and characterisation. There’s no hint in her delivery of the polished West End musical style that tends to deaden any character work done between show tunes. Whether that’s because she can’t do it or it’s a creative choice may be up for debate but Sweet Charity is all the better for it. By the time she gives a delicate, note-perfect reprise of There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This at the end, my money is firmly on the former. Duff can not only act and sing at the same time, but she can also act through and with her singing voice. It isn’t until you see it done that you realise how infrequently it’s achieved.
But much as she can make even the most two-dimensional character emotionally complex, it isn’t enough to transform Sweet Charity into more than the sum of its part. It remains a moribund it’s-tough-being-a-broke-woman-but-we-endure tale with some self-conscious male-gaze sexiness directed at men in the front row. For all Rourke’s visual flair and directorial panache, it might not be enough for 2019’s audiences to feel comfortable celebrating.
Whatever the musical’s feminist missteps, there a chance no one will notice. Rourke clearly told her creative team to go for it; Sweet Charity’s fun dial is permanently turned up to max. We first encounter Charity being plunged into a ball-pit lake by yet another scumbag beau who’s made off with her purse, and things get wilder from there. There’s lots of teetering on ladders tiny and big, a see-saw that adds an element of jeopardy to an otherwise twee scene, a neon nail polish Coney Island, overhead projectors as elevators and some odd unpacking of Brillo boxes and more, and then even more. It’s smart, inventive and downright dazzling… until it’s not. It becomes exhausting watching the super-hardworking cast shove another sofa across the stage, no matter how sleekly it’s done. It’s possible, it seems, to have too much fun.
It’s a testament to the cast that they flourish with so much on-stage distraction. Sweet Charity is less interesting when Duff is off stage – apart from a show-stealing, sequinned turn from Adrian Lester for The Rhythm of Life and a Wayne McGregor-choreographed Warhol dance (which should be immediately be inserted into the repertoire of wedding disco classics) – but the cast succeeds in twinkling around her as individuals and as a chorus. Arthur Darvill is a master of physicality, playing Oscar the nervous nerd to his fingertips, and Martin Marquez is a treat as egocentric yet kindly matinee idol Vittorio Vidal. And Debbie Kurup, Charlotte Jaconelli, Lizzy Connolly all carve out some time to sparkle beyond the chorus.
What’s for sure is that Rourke is not saying goodbye to her Donmar days with a career-defining reinterpretation of a classic work. Instead, she’s riding the Sweet Charity party bus out of town. And, after everything she’s achieved, you’ve got to respect a woman’s decision to go out in a blaze of ball pits if she wants to.
Sweet Charity is on at Donmar Warehouse until 8th June. More info and tickets here.