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Review: Sweet Charity (Royal Exchange)

Kaisa Hammarlund leads the cast of Derek Bond's revival

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars
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"Fun, laughs, good times." The ingredients of any good musical comedy. What the purred promises of "Big Spender" fail to mention, though, are the sorrow, disappointment and indignity, which Sweet Charity has in spades. The heroine of this Broadway classic might love happy endings, but there are precious few to be found in her own story.

Sweet Charity is, once you look beyond the high kicks and the glitter, quite an odd choice for the Royal Exchange's end-of-year musical offering. After all, there's very little that's festive about the story of a woman repeatedly used and abused by men. The point, seemingly, is the eponymous Charity's optimism and stoic cheeriness in the face of adversity. Watching this 1966 show today, though, its humour is tinged with more than a hint of discomfort.

Derek Bond's production, for all its determinedly feel-good musical numbers, is aware of these difficulties. His rendering of dance hall hostess Charity's journey from humiliation and heartbreak to, erm, humiliation and heartbreak attempts to reclaim some agency for female characters who can all too easily be cast as victims. "Big Spender", iconically realised by Bob Fosse as a line-up of dancers arrayed for the gaze of the male customer, is relocated to the dressing room, where the women bitterly but good-humouredly mock what they have to do for a living. And for another of the big musical numbers, "The Rhythm of Life", the usually male role of the cult leader is given to the fantastic Josie Benson.

Charity herself, meanwhile, is imagined as one part strength, one part vulnerability and one part kooky optimism. Kaisa Hammarlund, though not the strongest singer in the cast, is eminently likeable as the sunny-spirited dancer on the lookout for love. When unexpectedly landed in the apartment of movie star Vittorio Vidal, or when finally receiving the declaration of love she's long yearned for, her eyes widen with childlike glee. After yet another heartbreak, though, Hammarlund also allows us to see just a tremor of despair – quickly succeeded by a smile that suggests hardened resolve more than real cheerfulness.

Staging any musical in the round is a challenge, but Bond's fast-moving production makes the shape of the Royal Exchange's auditorium work to its advantage. The unusual configuration allows for a conspiratorial edge: like her dance hall colleagues, we in the audience are cast as Charity's confidantes and cheerleaders. For a show that's choreography heavy, the dancing lacks a little sharpness, but Aletta Collins' routines cleverly fan out to fill the circular space of the Royal Exchange's stage. James Perkins' design likewise works cannily with the particular conditions of this theatre, relying on a colourful array of costumes and a few carefully placed props to create the distinct atmospheres of the many New York destinations that Charity's unpredictable life rapidly whisks her through.

Still, though, there are moments that jar. "It's not dance," says one of the dance hall old-timers to an apprehensive new girl. "It's self-defence to music." It's a brutal line, and one that kicked me in the gut, though judged by the audience response it tickles the funny bones of plenty of others. And that's the problem: in subverting genre expectations, Sweet Charity tries too hard to play everything for laughs. It's a bitter story with a sweet coating, generating contradictions that this production falls just short of handling.

Sweet Charity runs at the Royal Exchange, Manchester until 28 January 2017.

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