Review: Sweet Charity (Watermill Theatre)

The Watermill Theatre revives Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ musical

Gemma Sutton and the cast of Sweet Charity at the Watermill
Gemma Sutton and the cast of Sweet Charity at the Watermill
© Philip Tull

The big Broadway hit of 1966 boasts a book by Neil Simon, Cy Coleman's music and Dorothy Fields' lyrics and is based in turn on Federico Fellini's 1957 Oscar-winning Italian movie Le Notti di Cabiria. So how does it fare, the musical about the New York taxi dancer (for hire by the minute) with the heart of gold, transposed to 2018 in the climate of the #MeToo movement? Artistic director Paul Hart's thrilling ensemble of 13 actor/musicians is brassy in more ways than one, but they bring out the musical's unsettling undertones.

So forget the advent of social media (which would have given Charity the chance to get a selfie of her night with Italian heartthrob Vittorio Vidal) and go with the spare, laid-back narration that states this is spring 2018, and there are plenty of moments that give voice to the girls of the sleazy Fandango Ballroom. Each suggests the real woman behind the über-sexy hostess and Simon and Fields wrote them as a supportive little family. Although the men are mostly at best ineffectual, at worst exploitative (the story begins with Charity's boyfriend pushing her into Central Park's lake, stealing her bag and leaving her to drown) there is still enough warmth and good humour to make this musical bittersweet rather than sour.

Stunning orchestrations by Watermill stalwart Sarah Travis and co-orchestrator and musical director Charlie Ingles create a heart-stopping sound as the cast burst onto the stage, a line-up of all-singing, all-dancing, brass-led players, their long shiny instruments part of the scenery, the choreography (by Tom Jackson Greaves), extensions of their characters. They look stunning too, in slinky monochrome, black with white collars, bow-ties, braces. They wind sinuously beneath and between Diego Pitarch's glittering, candy-coloured heart-shaped hoops, suggesting mysterious depth on the Watermill's intimate stage, thanks too to Malcolm Rippeth's lighting.

As big-hearted Charity, big-voiced petite Gemma Sutton is a whirlwind of warmth and sweetness, optimistic against all odds. Pitarch dresses her in a riot of bad taste bright colours that light up the stage. The Fandango girls provide a collective second lead, though each is a real individual. They're led by the sensational Vivien Carter as Nickie, her strength and resilience palpable, especially in the almost heart-breaking "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This". There's real desperation beneath the sexual front of their "Big Spender".

Alex Cardall, 2018 Stephen Sondheim Student Performer of the Year, makes an impressive professional debut as an infuriatingly wimpy Oscar. Another newcomer, Tomi Ogbaro, fresh out of Rose Bruford, has the ideal expansive stage presence as cult leader Daddy to front the show-stopping "Rhythm of Life", its glorious harmonies blending to perfection under on-stage musical director Tom Self. The Watermill's summer musical finds the pathos behind the front – yet it's still as cool as it is hot.