Review - Sweet Charity starring Anne-Marie Duff at the Donmar Warehouse
As she bows out as artistic director of the Donmar Warehouse, Josie Rourke is leaving her mark on the classic musical Sweet Charity. She’s got the great Anne-Marie Duff making her musical theatre debut in the title role, a stellar roster of talent, and some of the biggest numbers in musical theatre. But, just like Charity, this production never really seems to find its feet as it flits between trying to create a super hip vibe, while keeping its traditional appeal.
Right from the outset, it’s trying so hard to be cool: we're listening to vinyl as Robert Jones’ completely chromatic set fills with the nonchalant cast. Then we meet Charity’s phony Alex Turner-like boyfriend Charlie, and the Andy Warhol-styled straight-faced dancers with matching black polar necks and sunglasses.
But the hopelessly optimistic Charity stands out as a ray of light against the cloudy grey. The New York dancer-for-hire retains a smile on her face as man after man mess her about before she eventually ends up trapped in a lift with Oscar, the awkward, endearing man she eventually falls for.
Duff brings a hectic ditsy quality to Charity; she never seems to know whether she’s coming or going, but always beaming no matter what. There's a cutesy quality to part, especially in numbers like “If My Friends Could See Me Now” or “You Should See Yourself”, and while she can belt a tune, she doesn’t really demonstrate the more tender side to her voice.
And much of musical runs at the same level. The sultry dancers of the Fandango Ballroom fill the space with their huge voices during a deconstructed “Big Spender” which teetered on the brink of being broken down too much before a thoroughly satisfying pay-off. The most enigmatic performance of the night probably comes in the show’s big second act opener, “Rhythm of Life”, performed by a guest actor each week. On press night, Adrian Lester, in a fabulous silver-sequined top, almost stole the show as Daddy Brubeck.
From then on, the production becomes far less chic. There’s more colour, more personality, and it feels a bit more like a classic, too. Our All-American sweetheart is draped in the Stars and Stripes by a marching band as her beau proclaims his love for the first time, and the dancers of the club have a food fight at Charity’s leaving do. It’s a lot more fun, but not as cool (or try-hardy) as act one.
Arthur Darvill breathes some comedy into the show as Oscar, and Lizzy Connolly and Debbie Kurup are both sharp and strong as Charity’s veteran colleagues Nickie and Helene. While the positively jovial score sometimes seems to clash with Rourke’s edgier vision of the piece, the ensemble often comes together with spectacular, epic vocals.