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Review: SWEET CHARITY, Donmar Warehouse

Sweet Charity

Set in 1960s New York, Sweet Charity centres around unlucky-in-love dance hall hostess, Charity Hope Valentine, who has dreams of making a better life for herself. This revival of Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Neil Simon's show marks Josie Rourke's final production as Artistic Director of The Donmar Warehouse, and it's safe to say Rourke isn't going out quietly!

Sweet CharityThis is a bold revival, with strong style and brilliant design from Robert Jones, which swoops beyond the auditorium and downstairs into the Donmar's shiny foyer. There are some fantastically stylised moments; the piece opens with Charity being pushed into a lake, which is represented by a fabulous ball pool contained in a cylinder as tall as the circle.

Despite featuring some iconic numbers, most notably "Big Spender", Sweet Charity is arguably a flawed musical. The ending of the show, which premiered on Broadway in 1966, has notably been altered many times and I struggle to become emotionally invested in the piece.

Charity is a demanding role; having been originated by Gwen Verdon, the likes of Debbie Allen, Chita Rivera, Bonnie Langford, Christina Applegate and most recently Tamzin Outhwaite, Sutton Foster and Denine Van Outen have all taken it on. In this revival, Anne-Marie Duff makes her musical theatre debut as Charity.

Duff has terrific stage presence and acts the role sensationally, balancing Charity's larger-than-life personality with her vulnerability beautifully. She lures the audience in and you can't help but immediately warm to Charity.

Vocally, Duff is perhaps out of her depth; the score doesn't seem to be a comfortable fit for her voice. Her strongest number is "If My Friends Could See Me Now", which Charity sings when she ends up at the apartment of film star Vittorio Vidal (much to her disbelief). Duff delivers each line to perfection and here her vocals fall into place, but elsewhere she sounds strained and overwhelmed by the score.

Duff is supported by a luxurious ensemble cast, many of whom are renowned leading actors in their own right. Lizzy Connolly and Debbie Kurup play Charity's best friends, dazzling during the numbers "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This" and "Baby, Dream Your Dream". Connolly and Kurup are joined by Lauren Drew, Jo Eaton-Kent, Charlotte Jaconelli, Amy Ellen Richardson and Danielle Steers for a killer performance of Sweet Charity's most iconic song, "Big Spender".

Wayne McGregor's choreography often appears simplistic, yet is stylised with great detail and delivered with Broadway precision by the tremendous cast (mentions must also go to Ryan Reid, Shaq Taylor and Will Haswell, who impress throughout). No matter where you're sat, due to the intimacy of the Donmar there's nowhere to hide - the cast lock eyes with audience members throughout, providing moments of great intensity.

It's always a treat to see Arthur Darvill back onstage, and his performance as Oscar Lindquist - a shy tax accountant Charity meets when they get stuck in a lift at the end of the first act - is nothing short of charming.

Guest actors, including Le Gateau Chocolat, Beverley Knight and Clive Rowe, have been lined up to play Daddy Brubeck throughout the run. The cameo role appears at the start of the second act, leading the number "The Rhythm Of Life". On press night Adrian Lester took to the stage, as part of a two-week run, and almost blew the roof off the Donmar with his killer vocals and sequinned top! Let's hope Lester doesn't make us wait too long before taking on another musical role.

Whilst Rourke's production features brilliance, ultimately I was left a little cold by Sweet Charity. I don't think the material stands strong enough on its own, and even a fantastic ensemble, top-notch choreography and magnificent design can't hide the flaws in this piece. Nevertheless, the show-stopping numbers and Duff's heartwarming performance pave the way for an enjoyable evening featuring some musical theatre delights.

Sweet Charity at Donmar Warehouse until 8 June.

Photo Credit: Johan Persson

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