Sweet Charity review – five-star revival of the 60s Broadway musical

Royal Exchange, Manchester
Kaisa Hammarlund’s portrayal of Neil Simon’s Everywoman strikes a perfect balance

Some people see Neil Simon’s 1966 musical comedy (with lyrics by Dorothy Fields and music by Cy Coleman) as anti-feminist. I’m not so sure. The tweaks given by director Derek Bond and designer James Perkins to fit Sweet Charity into this theatre-in-the-round sharpen its focus. In their production, Charity is an Everywoman figure who, in the face of trials and tribulations, manages to maintain faith in her creed: “Without love, life has no purpose.” The addition of a chorus, commenting on the action, points up Charity’s struggle: to make a decent life in a cynically indifferent city.

In the opening scene, Charity flounders (offstage) in the lake in the park, pushed in by her boyfriend as he snatches her bag. Passers-by gather to watch, as if at a spectacle: “I’ll get my brother. He’s never seen a drowning.” It’s slick, it’s funny, but it is also, as the actors’ gaze takes in the auditorium (with us watching them watching her), nudging us towards a question: how to be good, in a world such as this?

Sweet Charity trailer.

Charity is good. Everybody who meets her feels better for the encounter – even as they make her feel worse. She wears her broken heart tattooed on her biceps, and ekes out a living in “the rent-a-body business” as taxi girl in a dance hall. Her world-weary co-worker friends sneer or sigh at tales of her experiences with men.

If the balance of their rapport goes awry, Charity will come across as a ditzy woman with a man fixation. Here, equilibrium is perfectly calibrated: each performance, every note from the live band (under Mark Aspinall), each irony-laced dance step (Aletta Collins’s choreography), every atmosphere-creating light-change (Sally Ferguson). All pivots around Kaisa Hammarlund’s Charity. In her dazzling characterisation, we see not naivety, which is unconscious, but hope – the card she and her friends hold against the stacked deck of economic injustice.

Sweet Charity is at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 28 January

Contributor

Clare Brennan

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
In Dreams review – Roy Orbison jukebox musical is smart and sweet
The songs of the big O are used in crafty ways in David West Read’s moving, celebratory story about getting a band back together

Clare Brennan

16, Jul, 2023 @10:30 AM

Article image
The Famous Five: A New Musical review – lashings of vim
This co-production with Chichester Festival theatre nails the atmosphere and the performances, if not Enid Blyton’s knack for a good plot

Clare Brennan

09, Oct, 2022 @10:30 AM

Article image
Sweet Charity review – smug farrago is perfect musical for Trump's America
A luckless New York dancer takes scraps from a rich man’s table in a terrific-looking and sounding revival of the 60s show written by Neil Simon

Alfred Hickling

09, Dec, 2016 @3:09 PM

Article image
Sweet Charity review – cracking revival with Rebecca Trehearn a pitch-perfect lead
A strong score, fresh choreography and a spirited cast save Fellini-inspired musical from the dustbin of history

Michael Billington

06, Sep, 2018 @12:37 PM

Article image
Local Hero review – musical with a moral heart
Bill Forsyth’s adaptation of his 1983 film, with new music by Mark Knopfler, is topical all over again

Clare Brennan

31, Mar, 2019 @7:00 AM

Article image
She Loves Me review – the sweet smell of success
Matthew White’s exquisite, light-on-its-feet revival of the 1963 musical delights one audience member in particular…

Susannah Clapp

11, Dec, 2016 @8:00 AM

Article image
Everybody’s Talking About Jamie review – joyous teen drag musical
The drama lacks oomph but sheer exuberance carries this coming-of-age tale by Tom MacRae and Dan Gillespie Sells

Clare Brennan

19, Feb, 2017 @8:00 AM

Article image
Big Fish review – lifeless male bonding musical
Kelsey Grammer plays a father recovering from a stroke in this soppy, short-lived Broadway show

Susannah Clapp

12, Nov, 2017 @7:50 AM

Article image
Yes! Yes! UCS! review – vibrant musical of worker power
Clyde dockworkers take a stand in 1970s Scotland, in an affecting new play by Townsend Productions

Clare Brennan

27, Feb, 2022 @11:30 AM

Article image
We’re Not Going Back review – perfectly pitched miners’ strike musical
Elvi Piper’s fine revival of Boff Whalley’s 2014 musical comedy about three sisters on a pit village frontline in 1984 is full of humour, drama and lived experience

Clare Brennan

24, Mar, 2024 @11:30 AM