Nottingham Playhouse – until 22 September 2018
It’s now familiar territory – the ‘tart with a heart of gold’ longs to escape the grimy confines of misogyny and objectification, and find ‘true love’. It’s a dated concept, one that has come under scrutiny with the furore over the lack of progression/moral in the recent Pretty Woman Broadway musical. Let’s be honest, the notion that a woman needs a man in order to be happy is pretty tragic. With this in mind, how does Cy Coleman and Neil Simon’s Sweet Charity fare today? Well, if Pretty Woman is a twisted ‘fairytale’ then Sweet Charity is an altogether more realistic affair, while never compromising on entertainment value.
In Bill Buckhurst’s production we benefit from the delicate balance between the seediness of the New York backstreets with the technicolor of Charity’s blithe daydreams. From grubby dressing rooms, to the lo-fi gaudiness of the Fandango Ballroom, and luxurious apartments, Takis’ design is fluid and evocative. His boxed-in rooms within rooms draw us into a world that feels practically subterranean; an effective accompaniment to the themes of claustrophobia and (im)mobility that Simon weaves throughout the narrative.
Into this nether, taxi dancer Charity Hope Valentine bursts with effervescent glee. Rebecca Trehearn (in the starring role she’s long-deserved) radiates charisma, charm and talent in a triple threat performance that emphasises Charity’s eternal optimism to the point of fragility. Her rendition of ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’ is giddily uplifting, while the goofiness she affords Charity makes an already endearing character all the more loveable.
The music is, naturally, exquisite. The minute those big brassy horns strike up the first notes of ‘Big Spender’ I was sold. I’m a sucker for ‘Fosse’ and choreographer Alistair David re-creates the magic of those staccato flicks, louche, slouchy shoulders, and sultry hips to perfection. The chorus of taxi dancers strike the antithetical poses of seductive ennui with cold, blistering precision. Likewise, the ‘swinging sixties’ are wonderfully caricatured in ‘The Rhythm of Life’; a surreal interlude that seems devilishly knowing.
The real surprise for me though (my first time seeing the show) is the quality of the book. Neil Simon crafts deft comedy scenes and takes the plot on relatively unexpected routes. Simon has often been stylistically compared to Woody Allen, and this is no more apparent than in the hilariously neurotic elevator scene at the end of act one. The odd-couple pairing of Trehearn’s plucky go-getter and Marc Elliott’s perpetually pessimistic Oscar Lindquist presents a quirky chemistry which sets the musical aside from its contemporaries. Fast paced dialogue, heaps of cynicism and razor-sharp wit, while being able to pull off flights of whimsy without ever becoming sentimental, Simon’s contribution to Sweet Charity highlights the importance of the book to a musical’s success like few others.
Trehearn and Elliott are assured and likeable leads that bounce off each other with intelligent jocularity. After the enormous fun of his scenery-chewing role in the Donmar’s City of Angels, Elliott once again exemplifies his natural talent for comedy. The timing and physicality he brings to the painfully fretful Oscar more than makes up for his underpowered, though pleasant, singing voice. Amy Ellen Richardson and Carly Mercedes Dyer offer splendid support as Charity’s friends and co-dancers Nickie and Helene. Their world-weariness is a gravelly, liquor-and-cigarette-fuelled counterpoint to Charity’s ‘sweetness’, and their numbers ‘There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This’ and ‘Baby, Dream Your Dream’ are highlights in an altogether unforgettable score.
In musical theatre land, female sexuality has often been drawn on a scale of two; the virgin versus harlot, the Sandys versus the Rizzos, and in the middle of this there’s always the man, the ‘hero’, that’s inevitably going to take control of that sexuality and either ‘save’ or ‘awaken’ her. While Sweet Charity has its issues (Oscar still, in effect, ‘saves’ Charity by snubbing her), we see in Charity a female character that makes her own decisions and remains unapologetic about being herself. For a musical that’s over fifty years old, Sweet Charity certainly resonates in today’s world of disposable culture, fake news, and reinvigorated sexual politics. Combined with stonking music, a corker of a book that holds its own against Coleman’s score, and a production that juxtaposes sceptical veracity with quirky reverie, Buckhurst has a sure-fire hit on his hands.
Sweet Charity plays at the Nottingham Playhouse until 22nd September 2018.
Rebecca Trehearn and Marc Elliott in Sweet Charity.
Photo: Darren Bell