Donmar Warehouse, London – until 8 June 2019
The minute you walk in the joint (Hey, big spender!), the trumpets and sax blare an impertinent welcome and you’re in the right dive. Director Josie Rourke’s last hurrah, after running this smart little theatre for seven years, is a real Easter egg: an indulgent treat recklessly overdecorated with mad props, walking-billboards, a flock of stepladders and an over-the-top 1960s nightclub scene with the entire chorus dressed as Andy Warhols.
But to hell with the good-taste police: Lent is nearly over, and every number is irresistible. Neil Simon and Cy Coleman’s musical, fizzing with Dorothy Fields’ smart lyrics, tells one of the world’s most enduring love stories, echoed from grand opera to Tess of the d’Urbervilles. A young woman with a past falls happily in love with a respectable man who can’t, in the end, overlook her sexual history. Even if she was powerless, seduced or, like Charity Hope Valentine, with little choice but the sleazy life of a taxi-dancer fondled for dimes, “Stuck on the flypaper of life”. The old story still works today, as the #MeToo era reminds us how pretty girls get preyed on and shamed.
The glorious Anne-Marie Duff is Charity, the rashly generous, constantly betrayed nightclub ‘hostess’ whose only friends are the other girls. She is one of our finest serious actresses, with a marvellous face – ah, those mournful downturned brows – which turns in a flicker from mischief to bottomless weary woe. She is not known or trained for musicals, so surprise as well as delight met her husky-voiced energy and sweet physical wit. By the time Arthur Darvill as her geeky beloved Oscar let her down, every man in the audience and most of us women were helplessly, indignantly in love with the woman.
In the small space the dances are spectacular, and Wayne McGregor’s choreography richly expressive. On one hand we have the aggressive, sprawlingly sexy moves of the scowling girls in the club, wide-legged and jerky in Bob-Fosse style like broken robot Barbies: “We don’t dance – we defend ourselves to music.” But when Charity is herself, naively dazzled by meeting the movie star Vittorio, daydreaming about a better life or parading triumphantly with ‘I’m a Brass band!’, it’s quite different. She shrugs and skips and clowns and wriggles, clutching her shiny minidress like a little girl, graceful and artless and human in lovely contrast with her seedy life of paid-for snogs and weary bumps and grinds. She’s adorable. Her final betrayal is painfully shocking, even if you know the show well.
There’s a famous guest-spot with “The Rhythm of Life”, by Daddy Brubeck the spliff-wielding pastor leading a jazz-revivalist meeting . On press night Daddy B, terrorizing poor shy Oscar, was Adrian Lester with a spangled T shirt and helpless grin. Here’s another stage A-lister not known for an ability to dance. That showed, hilariously, but he was having such an indecent amount of fun than when Le Gateau Chocolat takes over on the 29th I fully expect to see Mr Lester outside, hanging around, hoping for another go. .who wouldn’t?