From New York 1966 to Eastbourne 2017: love, romance and the pursuit of happiness have no sell-by date, and Sweet Charity is as sweet as ever in this week’s Rattonian production at the Devonshire Park Theatre.
We catch the mood immediately. In the very first scene, Charity’s current-and-soon-to-be former boyfriend Charlie (Keith Smith) pushes her blithely into the lake in Central Park – and a whole crowd of onlookers respond not with alarm and emergency aid, but with amused curiosity. Charity is relentlessly lovable but relentlessly unlucky in love, and her story is at one remove from reality.
Charity herself is beautifully played by Emily Davis: occasionally maddening but always endearing, she wins every heart in the theatre. At times she contrives an angular gaucheness – not Emily’s natural posture, I should add! – and yet she sings with a controlled, lyrical power, her movement in the musical numbers dazzles, and the frozen spotlit poses that open and end the show are stunning.
The dimensions of the show ought to suit the Devonshire Park’s intimacy, but in truth this playing space is less suited to Rattonians’ customary expansive sets and grand scenery. Black drapes are a more modest alternative, although there is ample compensation in the bright, imaginative lighting – including the clever use of surtitles to introduce the scenes – and in some absolutely sparkling costumes.
Charity’s day-job – no, make that night-job – is hostess at the decidedly seedy Fandango Ballroom, a musical snakepit overseen by world-weary Tony Willer and staffed by a raunchily glamorous chorus line, not cloned or cliched but bubbling with life and character – all of them a real testament to the Rattonian ethic that everyone’s part matters.
The spirit of Bob Fosse, who directed the Broadway original, is alive in Jan Linton’s choreography, as always both disciplined and exuberant. There are echoes of a Cabaret or a Chicago and, indeed, an occasional hint of Minnelli in Emily Davis herself. Carl Greenwood’s brisk and cheerful band gives perfect support to the major ensemble numbers, Big Spender, See Me Now and a mesmerising Rich Man’s Frug.
Act One is a long episodic meander through Charity’s attempts – mostly failed ones – at romance. The story is kept alive with some lovely character cameos. Mark Adams (who also directs and co-produces with Melanie Adams) has great fun as roue and film magnate Vittorio, while Katie Wheatley is the perfectly coquettish ditched mistress Ursula. Laura Sivers in in sparkling form as Nickie, nicely counterpoised by fellow dancer Helene (Sophie Groves).
But be patient, for that lengthy first half ends in a deliciously funny duologue with Charity and latest marriage target Oscar (Damon Willer) – which precipitates a lively and uproarious Act Two. It opens with an utterly inspired Rhythm of Life – not simply the customary collection of flowery robes and hippies, but infiltrated by a hapless Charity and a pricelessly inept Oscar. Damon is one of the naturally most gifted and funniest men in theatre, and he plays this number like a Duke of Cornwall conscripted into the Royal Ballet. Fabulous.
For a while Charity seems to have found true love, but you’ll need to buy a ticket to discover. Either way, there is a lovely message at the heart of the show: quirkier people really can be nicer... Sweet Charity continues at the Devonshire Park Theatre until Saturday (29th July). By Kevin Anderson.