Sweet Charity review – cracking revival with Rebecca Trehearn a pitch-perfect lead

Nottingham Playhouse
A strong score, fresh choreography and a spirited cast save Fellini-inspired musical from feeling irredeemably dated

I sometimes worry that our regional theatres are over-reliant on musicals to provide a box-office boost. While Nottingham is a noted exception to the rule, it has still come up with a cracking revival by Bill Buckhurst of this surprisingly hardy survivor from 1966.

The show has dated in many ways, but boasts a fine score by Cy Coleman. This production is worth seeing for Rebecca Trehearn’s performance alone, as well as Alistair David’s choreography, which breaks free from the Bob Fosse template.

Mocking, come-hither approach ... the cast of Sweet Charity.
Mocking, come-hither approach ... the cast of Sweet Charity. Photograph: Darren Bell

The late Neil Simon was suitably modest about his book for this show – and with good reason. There are some vintage Simon lines, such as when the hostesses at the sleazy Fandango Ballroom announce: “We don’t dance – we defend ourselves to music.” But Simon softened Fellini’s Nights of Cabiria, on which the story is based, by turning the heroine, Charity Hope Valentine, from a sex-worker into a good-hearted, gullible taxi dancer. The strength of the show lies in the Coleman score and the Dorothy Fields lyrics, which provide a succession of hit numbers. There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This echoes the Latin rhythms of Leonard Bernstein’s America in West Side Story, expressing a similar sense of longing. I Love to Cry at Weddings is an exuberant comic chorale that acts as a counterpoint to the story’s downbeat ending.

Everything hinges on our response to Charity herself: a role created by Gwen Verdon and made famous on film by Shirley MacLaine. If played too sentimentally, the show doesn’t work. Trehearn is spot-on in demonstrating that Charity, however unlucky in love, is the eternal cockeyed optimist. Above all, Trehearn is funny. When Charity finds herself in the apartment of an Italian screen idol, she sings If My Friends Could See Me Now with the right amount of goofy astonishment, while cavorting in an outsize top hat. In I’m a Brass Band, where Charity believes herself to be on the brink of marriage, Trehearn enthusiastically mimes every instrument in the orchestra. And – the test of Trehearn’s performance– she succeeds in making you feel that the real losers are the men who reject her.

Sweet Charity … the real losers are the men who reject her.
Sweet Charity … the real losers are the men who reject her. Photograph: Darren Bell

If the production seems more like a renewal than a revival, it is because David’s choreography is free from Fosse-ification and escapes the original’s trademark style. In Big Spender, the taxi dancers are no longer lewdly draped over a barre but express their mocking, come-hither approach by allowing their hands to roam freely over their bodies. The Rich Man’s Frug, staged in a posh niterie, effectively parodies the narcissistic dance style of the super-rich. Throughout, the choreography looks new-minted rather than offering a faded carbon-copy.

Some elements of the show, such as the satirical religious cult called The Rhythm of Life, belong irrevocably to the past. But Buckhurst’s production is agile and fresh, and there are lively performances from Jeremy Secomb as the swanky movie star, Marc Elliott as Charity’s nervy wooer and Amy Ellen Richardson and Carly Mercedes Dyer as her supportive chums. The show may be a product of its time, but it could hardly be done with more panache.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

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