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Watermill Theatre - Sweet Charity

26th July to 15th September 2018

Review from The Telegraph.

#metoo era update makes the plot puzzling

four stars
Neil Simon hummed and hawed about Sweet Charity. On the one hand, it was a slamdunk hit, confirming his reputation (post Barefoot in the Park and The Odd Couple) as the golden boy of Sixties Broadway. On the other, he could see its deficiencies.

“I felt that I did the best I could with material that didn’t really suit me,” he wrote in his memoir Rewrites. The credit, he felt, belonged to composer Cy Coleman, lyricist Dorothy Fields and choreographer Bob Fosse and the latter – who had asked Simon to join the team – was particularly piqued at the critical plaudits that hurtled the playwright’s way.

The problems that Simon (still going at 91) cited remain easily identifiable. He stuffed the script with winning wisecracks but struggled to “create a real life” for irrepressible heroine Charity. The show was derived from the 1957 Fellini film Nights of Cabiria, about the romantic travails of a prostitute in Rome.

In sweetening and Americanising the tale, turning ‘Cabiria’ into ‘Charity Hope Valentine', dancing partner for hire at New York’s Fandango Ballroom, the musical delivers a thumb-nail sketch of a battle-hardened dreamer in a demanding, predatory (man’s) world that feels quite psychologically blurry.

“Your big problem is you run your heart like a hotel - you got guys checkin’ in and out all the time” squawks the friendliest of her fellow hostesses, Nickie. And that’s about the upper limit of emotional insight.

The banker numbers – Big Spender, If My Friends Could See Me Now and There’s Got to be Something Better Than This in the first half alone – are what you remember, boost your engagement levels. But what are you, finally, to think, to feel?

Paul Hart’s revival at the Watermill has the immediate curiosity value of packing this uneven evocation of a bustling, exploitative demi-monde into a confined space. In terms of bravura logistics, with the cast of 13 contriving to play their instruments, dance, sing – and act, natch – you take your hat off at the start and never put it back on. The sleazy, brassy invitation of Big Spender can seldom have carried such chest-thumping heft, the hostesses so close they can shame you with a cold stare even as they ostensibly come on to you.

Factor in a tremendous leading turn from Gemma Sutton as Charity, going gooey over unsuitable, even unspeakable men, oscillating between unlikely optimism and predictable dismay, and you’ve got plenty enough to enjoy here. And yet Hart attempts to go further by giving it a nominal 2018 setting.

This #metoo era update makes a slight puzzlement of the plotting: wouldn’t, say, Charity want a selfie with the handsome film star who picks up her at a night-club, not his memorabilia, and why would she and her neurotic third beau get trapped in an elevator without getting out their phones?

The overall effect is to add to, not subtract from, the show’s existing deficits. It is what it is – and audiences should be allowed to inspect it, critique it, even charitably cherish it, warts and all.


Review from The Times.

The transplant from the Sixties to Trump’s America is not entirely successful, but the material is as poignant, sassy and exhilarating as ever

three stars
Charity Hope Valentine: New York “taxi dancer”, incurable romantic, eternal optimist — she’s a heroine easy to lose your heart to. In Paul Hart’s revival of the 1966 musical by Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields, Charity’s haphazard search for happiness is ripped from its Sixties setting and deposited in today’s America.

It’s not a transplant that’s entirely successful. Hart doubtless intended a satirical swipe at Harvey Weinstein, pussy-grabbing and the politics of consumerism and sexual commodification, but his makeover feels more like a distortion than a radical reinterpretation.

There are references to President Trump and updates of some numbers, notably a nightclub sequence with throbbing beats and a DJ on the decks, and a hip-hop Rhythm of Life. Yet bizarrely, this is a Big Apple where no one owns a cell phone; where punters choose a fumble and a stumble around the dance floor of the Fandango Ballroom over a lapdance or strip joint; and where marriage is women’s ultimate ambition.

While the overhaul is dubious, the material is as poignant, sassy and exhilarating as ever — and when Hart allows it to sing, it’s so sensational that we forgive the staging’s contrivances. Gemma Sutton is a terrific Charity, as tough and witty as she is sweet-natured, leading a cast of actor-musicians who, in orchestrations by Sarah Travis and Charlie Ingles, turn Coleman’s score into a riot of brass, woodwind, percussion and electric guitar. And beneath Sutton’s wide smile and fast-talking, pratfalling comic verve there’s a desperate hunger and a fiery determination that give her misadventures bite.

Diego Pitarch’s set of glittery, bulb-bedecked love hearts supplies tacky glamour as Charity and her hostess friends wearily obey the barked command, “Drag your asses out on the floor.” Big Spender, that brilliant blast of sex and sleaze, is delivered in Tom Jackson Greaves’s choreography with a touch of Bob Fosse’s ugly-beautiful angularity and with snarling despair; we see the aching heads and muscles and the eye-rolling contempt, even disgust.

Vivien Carter is outstanding as Nickie, Charity’s gimlet-eyed, hardbitten chum; she and her fellow dancer Helene (Emma Jane Morton) make devastating work of the sublime Baby, Dream Your Dream, a song about wedded bliss that begins as a joke, but ends in desolate longing.

In a world of exploited women and feckless men, Hart doesn’t let Charity’s geeky boyfriend, Oscar, off the hook; as played by Alex Cardall, he’s a nakedly selfish bully. If he doesn’t adore Sutton’s Charity, we do, and in the end, for all its faults, the show is equally impossible to resist.


Review from Newbury Theatre.

Sweet Charity is the story of ‘a girl who wanted to be loved’, set in 1960s New York but with hints of 2018 to emphasise the story’s relevance to today.

Charity, played with pizazz by Gemma Sutton, is a dance hall hostess – think lap dancer – small in stature but big in personality, a shining light of naïve optimism in a cynical world and ever ready to bounce back from life’s disappointments.

The plot is thin: Charity is fed up with her dead-end job and wants to be loved. After spending a chaste night with a famous film star, she meets nerdy Oscar and they start a relationship. There’s a twist at the end, and that’s it. So the show’s success depends on the setting, the music and the choreography. The Watermill has a long history of using actor-musicians and of producing big musicals on a tiny stage, some more successful than others but this one works really well.

The careful, precise choreography (by Tom Jackson Greaves) shows itself off in the early number Big Spender and all the way through the musicians can tuck themselves away at the sides to free up the stage.

The musicians are strong on brass – loud and sleazy – but orchestrators Sarah Travis and Charlie Ingles have made sure that it never drowns the singers.

Gemma Sutton makes Charity likeable and needy. Her chance encounter with smooth actor Vittorio (Elliot Harper) leaves her starstruck when he takes her to a posh club than back to his pad (If My Friends Could See Me Now). Determined to better herself she meets Oscar (a strong performance from Alex Cardall) who becomes the love of her life and gives her the opportunity to leave her pessimistic co-workers.

Director Paul Hart’s production is full of energy, enhanced by the music and the exciting lighting on the gaudy set with its movable see-through mirrors. It’s a fun show with some well-known songs and a well-coordinated set of actors and musicians, but it didn’t excite me.


Review from the Newbury Weekly News.

Life's sweet at the 'mill

Pizazz and poignance… Paul Hart's Charity revival has both

Sweet Charity, at The Watermill, Bagnor, until Saturday, September 15

Think Big Spender, Rhythm of Life, If My Friends Could See Me Now. There isn't a dull moment in this sparkling summer musical.

Originally conceived, staged and choreographed by Bob Fosse for the Broadway production, choreographer Tom Jackson Greaves achieves the seemingly impossible at The Watermill with 13 actor/musicians, often all on stage together, bringing a riotously glorious exuberance to the songs written by Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields.

The story, written by Neil Simon, follows Charity Hope Valentine's hankering for love and to leave her job as a dance hostess in the downtown Fandango Ballroom. She frequently believes she has found Mr Right, only to be disappointed and it is not until she gets stuck in a lift with the geeky Oscar Lindquist (Alex Cardall), a man to whom purity is all, that it seems her luck has changed – as long as he doesn't know about her job.

Then, oh joy, he tells her he knows what she is and it doesn't matter. All is set fair, her boss Herman (Samuel Morgan-Grahame) sings a superb I Love To Cry at Weddings and a happy ending should be in sight.

Gemma Sutton brings Charity to vivid life as a likeable feisty yet vulnerable character alternating between pathos with Where Am I Going and delirious happiness – I'm a Brass Band – backed up by her dance hostess friends, among them Nickie and Carmen (Nicola Bryan) who try to make her face the truth about men.

Here, and throughout, there are delicious snippets of humour.

Early in the production the audience realise what lies ahead as Nickie (an outstanding performance from Vivien Carter) leads the girls in the dynamic, pulsating, provocative Big Spender. You will never forget it. Nor will you forget other dance numbers in which the lads join the girls and the stage, backed by two moveable mirrors, becomes a whirlpool of colour, music and action.

Although it is undoubtedly the girls who steal the show, they are backed up by strong performances from the men, including Elliot Harper as Italian heartthrob Vittorio Vidal and Tomi Ogbaro (Daddy).

It's good to have Sarah Travis back supervising the music with co-orchestrator and musical director Charlie Inglis, working with these brilliant actor/musicians to bring Charity's story to life.

Director Paul Hart has provided his audiences with a thrilling, colourful, exciting and, in the end, after all the pizazz, heartrending evening.


There are reviews from WhatsOnStage ("Paul Hart's thrilling ensemble of 13 actor/musicians is brassy in more ways than one, but they bring out the musical's unsettling undertones... finds the pathos behind the front – yet it's still as cool as it is hot" - 4 stars), The Stage ("valiant updating of a classic Broadway musical that may set the tone for future productions" - 4 stars), Pocketsize Theatre ("an extraordinarily talented cast of thirteen actor-musicians. It is sexy, energetic and great fun... another huge success which sends you home humming the tunes" - 5 stars).