Last season’s Christmas cracker at the Menier Chocolate Factory has become this year’s summer’s showdown at the Haymarket, as the girls in the Fan-Dango Ballroom defend themselves to music and Charity Hope Valentine tries to get up and go and find something better than this.

I feared that Matthew White’s hard-boiled and raucous revival might not survive the switch. After all, the Menier musicals always operate on a surprise basis of overcoming the odds stacked against them.

I should have known better. Just as La Cage aux Folles preserved its sleazy backstage authenticity at the Playhouse, and A Little Night Music shimmered just the same at the Garrick, so Sweet Charity socks it to us big time at the Haymarket, with the band upstage behind a slightly larger backdrop on Coney Island and Tamzin Outhwaite moving up a gear with no trouble.

Hers was always a beautifully resourceful, touching and funny performance, but she’s added not only steel and volume but also a sense of walking straight into things without realising the consequences. She’s open-hearted and goofy at the same time.

And while Outhwaite may not be a virtuoso dancer in the role like Gwen Verdon or Juliet Prowse – this shows up in the difficult “If My Friends Could See Me Now” in the film star’s bedroom, which sags a bit – she compensates with a spirit the size of the Jersey tunnel.

It’s a bonus that Mark Umbers plays all the men (not) in her life; not just the preening film star Vittorio Vidal and the nervy tax accountant Oscar Lindquist, but also the jerk who pushes her in the lake in the first scene and the handsome GI who offers her a light in the last.

Umbers is the real deal, our best new leading musicals man for a long time, John Barrowman with chest hair, and his triumph at the Haymarket is the match of Outhwaite’s.

Renewed bravoes, too, for Josefina Gabrielle (doubling the most cynical slapper with Vidal’s screeching diva girlfriend) and Tiffany Graves, whose elevation and extension – I think these are technical terms – are a thing of wonder; she’s got a great ass, too.

Stephen Mear’s choreography is a jitterbug-based series of robotic limb movements, faintly indebted to Bob Fosse, but wittily “period” in its own right, especially in the nightclub scene (where Ebony Molina is a silver sensation) and the Rhythm of Life Church, where the congregation is a stoned hippie-Hair-style snake dance.

- Michael Coveney


NOTE: The following FIVE STAR review dates from December 2009, and this production's premiere at the Menier Chocolate Factory

The minute you walk in the joint, you can see the Menier’s revival of the 1966 Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields New York musical is a Christmas cracker.

The trumpets blare out the opening notes of a brassy summons to the Manhattan skyline on a platform above the stage. Tamzin Outhwaite’s unhappy hooker with a heart of gold falls in the Central Park lake.

She’s fished out and heads for work in the dance-hall, where the girls line up with the Bob Fosse-style spread-eagled, over-made-up ferocity of a bunch of drag queens. Fun, laughs, good times: that’s what’s on offer, and you’d better believe it.

It’s ten years since Bonnie Langford gamely strutted her stuff through a woefully cheapskate, provincial West End revival, so the time might be right for this one. And Matthew White’s production, brilliantly choreographed by Stephen Mear as a series of Sixties pop art tableaux vivants - “The Rhythm of Life” is a stoned, snake-like hilarious hippie send up of Hair - pins down the smart, sassy sentimentality of the musical with a vengeance.

Outhwaite’s a revelation. A proven dramatic actress on stage and screen, she has a blistering musical comedy presence, and athleticism, that makes you forget you’re sorry you’re not watching Shirley MacLaine in the movie after about ten seconds. And she’s backed by a cast of hand-picked high-energy soloists who meld into a truly dynamic ensemble.

Best of all there’s Mark Umbers (once the definitive Freddie Eynsford-Hill) as the nervy tax accountant Oscar - love strikes in the first and only Broadway Act One closer set in a jammed elevator, played here like a snappy Mike Nichols and Elaine May sketch - and Josefina Gabrielle as the most cynically world weary prostitute.

These two, in a stroke of genius, are doubled with the vain movie star and his irate leading lady in the black and white bust-up, Outhwaite smuggled into the star’s transparent wardrobe to witness their carnal reconciliation. But the whole cast kicks, from Tiffany Graves’ sexily astrin-gent Helene and Annalisa Rossi’s smoky-voiced Carmen right through to Paul J Medford’s Afro-bobbing Daddy and Jack Edwards’ nightclub owner.

Tim Shortall’s witty sets leave a clear stage when needed and Nigel Lilley’s musical direction makes hay with Chris Walker’s new orchestrations. With its surprise, bitter sweet ending (incorporating the truth of the Fellini film source), great libretto and string of knock-out songs - “I’m a Brass Band” is an ensemble item of genius to convey Charity’s lit up emotional state - you can turn up, sit back and enjoy the top treat in town this holiday season.