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?
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