Thursday 18 April 2019

Sweet Charity at the Donmar, or, A Flawed Concept

Note: This is a review of the first preview on Saturday 6th April 2019. The press night was (I think) last night.

I previously saw this musical when the Menier revived it - I was somewhat horrified to discover this was back in 2009. I remember being rather moved by it, and blown away by certain numbers. When this production was announced I looked forward to revisiting the show. There are moments of inventiveness in the staging, and fleeting emotional punch, but overall it doesn't reach the same level as that earlier version.

The fundamental problem is the decision of director Josie Rourke and designer Robert Jones to set the show in a Warhol-esque fantasy environment - the programme explains it is inspired by his Silver Factory period of the 60s. I'm not particularly well acquainted with Warhol's life story, but most viewers should spot the various Warhol lookalikes, and the take offs of aspects of his art which are everywhere. This fits the Fandango Ballroom, where Charity and co ply their trade, to an extent. It creates a sterile, bleak environment appropriate to the plight of the entrapped women. But unfortunately the effect goes further than that creating for me an emotional coldness which the show rarely transcended. This is partly also a consequence of the very classic Fosse like costuming of the women - black bodysuits and very little else akin to the London revival of Chicago. I confess I've never found this kind of costuming very sexy - in this case while I can see the point of playing up the transactional nature of the Ballroom world again I think the cost to the humanity and individuality of the girls is problematic for the viewer's emotional engagement with the show. It alienates rather than making us care.

Rourke has also applied the Warhol concept to the whole show. This works beautifully in the Coney Island scene - where the two fantastical worlds are naturally in sympathy. It is much less effective elsewhere. It renders the opening Park set episode too unreal and silly - I can see the problem of trying to manage a near drowning on this stage, but I'm afraid this one is just not convincing - it would have been better to make the audience imagine. The concept removes the crucial feeling of difference between onstage worlds - there is insufficient to distinguish either the Pompeii Club or Vittorio Vidal's apartment from the Fandango Ballroom and this undermines that powerful but fleeting sense of possible escapes which is crucial for sympathy with Charity.

But casting is also an issue here - in particular Anne-Marie Duff as Charity. Duff and Rourke seemed to me in doubt about what they think Charity's past has been - when she talks about it to Oscar (Arthur Darvill) I wasn't sure she knew when she was lying and when not. They fail to draw enough of a distinction between Charity and the other girls. In the Menier production my recollection is that although one didn't doubt that Charity had been in the Ballroom eight years, I also believed that she had retained, protected by Nickie and Helene, an innocence which they have lost. This production makes no pretense on that front at all - the silver dress Charity has to wear in virtually every scene is a contributory factor. The result is that it is difficult to see how Oscar ever imagines that she might be a virgin - if Darvill were playing him as a more dense character the show might get away with this, but he isn't. I'm also not sure that Duff is vocally quite right for the part. There's a throaty, worldly cabaret like quality to the voice which again seems to me to go against the innocence the character needs to have. Duff is a bit short on vocal flexibility - there's power there but it is rather at one level making it difficult to build numbers. Finally, while Darvill's performance is well characterized, he and Duff haven't yet found enough chemistry in their relationship, though this may strengthen with more performances. Reflecting on this I wonder if it's another instance of a production which is not sure it believes in the distinction between Charity and the girls, or really takes seriously the possibility that Charity might escape - I can see arguments for this but I'm afraid the effect here as elsewhere is to hinder emotional engagement with the characters plights.

In the key supporting roles of Nickie and Helene, Lizzy Connolly and Debbie Kurup work hard - they're both very good dancers, and they do a fine job with the rather lovely Baby Dream Your Dream - but the Warhol replicas they have to unpack there are a distraction, and the production and design again leaches out needed individuality of character. Martin Marquez gives a nicely characterized Vittorio Vidal.

I've not yet mentioned Wayne McGregor's choreography. I've admired some of his work in modern dance (particularly ROH Woolf Works) but his bio in the programme lists only one musical theatre work (the very different A Little Night Music) and his approach here contributes to the evening's problems and doesn't get near the fantastic work of Stephen Mears for the Menier. Numbers rarely build to an effective climax - Rhythm of Life and, especially, the Rich Man's Frug suffer here. The latter is precisely executed but, I fear, just a bit mechanistic and dull where the Mears version was, as I recall, simply breathtakingly exciting. In I'm a Brass Band it didn't make sense to me why the dancers were there, or why they are all attired in American flags - again it's a key emotional moment in the story and the design and choreography let it down.

This is not an easy show to get right - Oscar Lindquist's reasons for breaking off with Charity in particular are a hard sell. But whereas the Menier version managed to move me, to make me feel the sense of entrapment, to make me sympathise with Charity, this performance left me largely emotionally cold. There's enough curiosities to make this worth seeing for intellectual interest, but it is not an occasion to queue for returns.

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