“Sweet Charity” at the Menier Chocolate Factory

With a terrific blast of brass, the Menier Chocolate Factory’s prodcution of Sweet Charity announces to the audience that it is in for a great evening out.

Tamsin Outwaite plays the eponymous lead.  She gives an endearing and spirited performance as the New York tango ‘hostess’ who wears her heart on her sleeve and manages to stay a romantic against all the odds. It is a demanding role, which she manages with great energy and a broad grin throughout.

Mark Umbers revels in playing the men in her life. A film idol, who sees in Charity a sweet innocence his sophisticated lifestyle now lacks, and the neurotic Oscar, her unlikely knight in shining armour.  He is a superb comedic foil and takes on the contrasting roles with equal skill.

If stars have to be singled out, though, Charity’s colleagues in the tango hall give amazing performances.  Tiffany Graves and Josefina Gabrielle both move far beyond their ‘tart with a heart’ roles to give their characters real depth.  They deserve the great laughs they get and, most importantly, they both sing and dance wonderfully.

But nobody really steals this show. This is one of the strongest ensemble casts I have ever seen – every member works as hard as they possibly can and great credit goes to casting such a talented group. ‘Rhythm of Life’ is probably the best example; Oscar and Charity’s first date is a visit to a drug-fuelled ‘church’ and the ensemble performance as the spaced-out congregation is comic genius.

Underpinning all this talent are some fresh ideas that really bring the show to life.  Director Matthew White has not felt burdened by the film version. The show has plenty of camp appeal but following Neil Simon’s book, a certain sharp, candid edge. ‘Big Spender’, which the whole audience is really waiting for, is an hilarious revelation.  It is performed with a mock sensuality by women who are tired and bored – of course they are, they’re at work.

Choreography by Stephen Mear, who did fantastic work at Regent’s Park this summer, is similarly superb.  He has a great showcase in the ‘Rich Man’s Fugue’ number. The dance brings comedy to the fore and his movements show the strange position of the piece as a late 60s musical – falling between a big Broadway show and something rather more avant-garde. There are set pieces to be sure but Mear has looked as far and wide for inspiration, as the music and lyrics of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields did. The result might seem odd at times, a joyous musical that denies us a happy ending, but is always thrilling.

Until 7 March 2010

www.menierchocolatefactory.com

Photo by Catherine Ashmore

Written 7 December 2009 for The London Magazine

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