Sweet Charity At London’s Donmar Warehouse Is “A Sparkling Take On A Classic”

Anne-Marie Duff stars in ‘Sweet Charity’ at London’s Donmar Warehouse. Here’s what we thought.

If a swing appears on stage, hooked on either end with thick rope swinging lightly in the auditorium’s breeze, you can bet your bottom dollar it depicts innocence and childhood. Except that the swing that lolls centre-stage at the Donmar Warehouse’s version of Sweet Charity is spray-painted a cruel graffiti-silver, which sets the scene beautifully for Charity Hope Valentine’s tumble into the lake by her cruel beau turned pickpocket Charlie.

Anne-Marie Duff plays Charity with all the wide-eyed naivety and heart-thumping soul you’d expect from an actress who can play Lady Macbeth in one beat and Blanche du Bois the next. She moves from playing the role of disappointed jilted partner to seductive dance hall hostess smoothly, adapting her soulful, gritty voice to every new number.

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Duff carries the play, which says a lot considering how strong the rest of the cast is. This is not a role for a wallflower. Duff spends large amounts of the evening on stage alone, belting out song after song with support from the band who are sequestered in the Donmar’s first floor bar for the duration of the show’s run.

Special mention must go to designer Robert Jones, who has created a set that emanates just the right amount of faded sparkle and lost joy. A neon red sign – “Girls Girls, Girls” –  stays illuminated throughout, as though taunting Charity’s age. She is as far from being a girl now as it’s possible to be, yet retains a youthful (and misplaced) trust in men.

Jones’ set has taken inspiration from Andy Warhol’s Factory, which explains why at one point the dancers flood the stage mirroring the artist in black wraparound sunglasses, blond wigs and tight black outfits. Choreography by Wayne MacGregor is daring – there’s a fierceness to Hey Big Spender, which starts off with the dancers perched seductively on stepladders of various heights. The Big Band song, where Duff ecstatically flicks the audience with red ribbon, celebrates how she has finally left the dance hall behind her, and it’s energetic and buoyant.

The audience follow Charity’s swings from disappointment to highs as she and the other girls sing about their dreams of leaving the dance hall behind in “There’s Gotta be Something Better Than This”, which kicks off with garter-washing in the onset sink. Martin Marquez plays the lovesick Vittorio Vidal to perfection as his voice reverberates “like tiny violins” when he says the name “Ursula”, his paramour. Duff hides in his closet which gets laughs, but it’s bittersweet: her snagged fishnet tights add to a quiet sense of desperation.

The show highlights the comedy well, in particular during a scene where Charity is stuck in a lift with Oscar Lindquist (played brilliantly by Arthur Darvill) who becomes more neurotic and claustrophobic as the scene continues. They sing about needing each other – a man needs a mother while the woman needs to feel loved. After all, as Charity says, the purpose of life is love.

Sweet Charity is outgoing Artistic Director Josie Rourke’s Donmar Warehouse swansong. It feels like a bold and fun choice to go out on, considering theatre’s move away from scantily clad showgirls and towards headstrong, independent women like Emilia Bassano.

Despite some of the choreographed numbers edging a little towards the long side, this is a show with such a resilient main character that you leave feeling hope. A sparkling, daring take on a classic, with updated choreography, roaring voices, and all the glitz and glamour of 60’s New York delivered to Central London you could want.

Sweet Charity runs at the Donmar Warehouse until June 8. 

Words by Eleanor Ross. Images by Johan Persson.

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