‘Who dances? We defend ourselves to music’. Sweet Charity has the potential to be an important show for our current times, its cynical and embittered hostesses offering a scathing indictment of a culture that puts women in the figurative shop window to have their time (and for many, their bodies) purchased by the sleazy punters who make their way down the line. As the title character dreams of the ways in which she might escape her eight-year ‘temporary job’, the show repeatedly reinforces the barriers – money, police, snobbery, conservative morality – that send the women back to the club where, in one of this production’s stand-out sequences, the women sing ‘Big Spender’ and offer ‘laughs’ with faces of thunder.
And yet, this is a musical as shallow as Charity’s own encounters. It’s sleazy rather than grimy, cheeky rather than dangerous, and the lightness of touch mitigates any sense of the stakes being high. Charity – especially in the remarkable performance of Rebecca Trehearn – is a delightful tour guide around New York: Coney Island, a hippy church, a movie star’s bedroom, the local community college.
The story paints a picture of a series of engagements so fleeting that Charity herself is unmoored, and when the final twist comes, the suddenness of her fiance’s volte-face feels not tragic, but cheap and nasty, the show taking on the hollowness of the institutions it seems to want to indict.
These are issues with the work, though, not this particular production. It’s been over a decade since Nottingham Playhouse produced a musical, and the theatre has pulled out all the stops out to create something with extraordinary production values. takis’s ingenious set looks initially unpromising – two large cylindrical platforms holding the band aloft – but the lower sections fold out with all the magic of a make-up box to create a series of constantly changing, richly detailed New York sets. Caroline Humphris’s ten-piece band is tight, and the costumes are ravishing. It may be a superficial show, but it looks and sounds great.
The script is a vehicle for pithy one-liners and spectacular set-pieces. The company sell the weak jokes for what they’re worth, but far better are the more fluid upstage interactions between the women in the bar, the production’s MVPs. The nine women (plus Charity) make for a believably mutually caring community, their hard words and bitter retorts a front. In one lovely moment, even as the girls mock the starry-eyed newcomer Rosie, they still take a quick moment to make sure she looks her best before the punters arrive, and the easy banter and gestures between the women are far funnier and warmer than the laugh-lines.
And the set-pieces, when they come, are glorious. The rigid motions and expressions of the Pompeii Club’s dancers are hilarious; the utterly bonkers Rhythm of Life sequence kicks off the second half with high energy; and Charity’s breakout ‘I’m A Brass Band’ celebration of being loved is accompanied by confetti cannons and flag-waving marching dancers. Alistair David’s choreography fills the stage with colourful variety.
The bulk of the work falls on Trehearn, who doesn’t stop for the whole thing. Her wry acceptance of everything that happens to her is affecting, and each of her songs is full of character. The over-the-top exuberance of ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’ contrasts with the bittersweet acceptance of the reprise as she sits alone in a closet; ‘You Should See Yourself’ is packed with desperation as she attempts to get Charlie’s attention; and her dancing is full of subtle beauty, particularly as she tries to settle into film star Vittorio Vidal’s bed. Her hard work is matched by the ensemble rotating through their guest songs; Jeremy Secomb is a particular highlight as the operatic Vittorio, but everyone gets their moment.
Despite Trehearn’s bravura performance, though, it’s hard to get past the play’s insistence that ‘without love, life would have no purpose’. Marc Elliott is brilliantly nervy as Oscar Lindquist (and his performance of claustrophobia in the lift scene was the most genuinely tense moment), but the show’s refusal to invest in any model of happiness other than the hope of heteronormative pairing-off means that its ending needs to pin far too much on the weak-willed man who Charity hopes to marry.
When he speaks of ‘saving her from him’ at the end, as he realises that he will never be able to get over the thought of her exes, the show gives a climactic platform to yet another man who wants praise and understanding for his choice to indulge in only short-term rather than long-term emotional abuse. And the suddenness of that moment means it ends before the play can subject it to meaningful critique.
But Buckhurst’s production also understands that there is more to life than love, and it finds beauty in the moments that reject men. The cynical take on ‘Big Spender’ is part of this, but the emotional high-point is Charity’s two roommates, sitting in a squalid bedsit, singing ‘Baby, Dream Your Dream’, where the out-of-reach subject of the song is belied by the closeness of the relationship; a moment of intimacy and mutual acceptance far purer than anything Oscar could aspire to.
Sweet Charity is on until 22 September 2018 at the Nottingham Playhouse. Click here for more details.