This is the end of an era. Josie Rourke bids farewell to the Donmar Warehouse – her home for the last seven years – by directing a revival of Sweet Charity, Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Neil Simon’s classic 1966 musical about a loveable but loveless Manhattan nightclub hostess’ rocky, romantic road.
Originally based on the Italian film Nights of Cabiria, Sweet Charity premiered on Broadway more than 50 years ago in a production, directed and choreographed by the legendary Bob Fosse, that was nominated for nine Tony Awards. It’s been staged regularly on both sides of the Atlantic ever since, including a spate of recent regional revivals in Manchester, Nottingham and Newbury.
Rourke’s revival stars Anne-Marie Duff as protagonist Charity Hope Valentine, features a supporting performance from Arthur Darvill as love interest Oscar and is choreographed by Royal Ballet resident Wayne McGregor. It also features a rotating cameo role, played by Adrian Lester on press night, but scheduled to be played by both Le Gateau Chocolat and Beverley Knight later in the run.
But does Rourke bid Covent Garden farewell in style? Does Duff deliver the goods on her musical debut? Are the critics sweet and charitable to Sweet Charity? Fergus Morgan rounds up the reviews.
Sweet Charity is set in 1960s Manhattan, but instead of going with the conventional, jazzed-up New York vibe, Rourke has decided to dress up the Donmar like Andy Warhol’s famous Factory warehouse, and entirely reimagine the musical’s aesthetics. And the critics, for the most part, go with it.
It’s “gloriously maximalist” according to Andrzej Lukowski (Time Out, ★★★★), “a stylish swansong” according to Fiona Mountford (Evening Standard, ★★★★), and “full of character, very enjoyable and highly intelligent” according to Sarah Crompton (WhatsOnStage, ★★★★).
“Robert Jones’ set includes a ball pit, giant Brillo boxes and most of the tin foil in WC1,” says Natasha Tripney (The Stage, ★★★★). “An overhead projector is used to create the effect of an elevator in motion. Coney Island is conjured with neon-fingered gloves, the Fandango Ballroom recreated with a bunch of metal step-ladders.”
“Some of Rourke’s directorial flourishes are sublime, some are ridiculous – some are endearingly Edinburgh fringe-y,” she continues. “Rourke does not really grapple with the more unsavoury aspects of the narrative nor dig beneath the surface. Her production is out to have fun and lots of it, to revel in the contents of her toy box before she hands it over to someone else.”
It’s “a real Easter egg: an indulgent treat recklessly over decorated with mad props, walking-billboards, a flock of stepladders and an over-the-top Sixties nightclub scene with the entire chorus dressed as Andy Warhols,” writes Libby Purves (Daily Mail, ★★★★). “But to hell with the good-taste police: Lent is nearly over, and every number is irresistible.”
It’s “defiantly unconventional, riotously over the top and a lot of fun,” agrees Sarah Hemming (Financial Times, ★★★★), while Lukowski notes that “any show that starts with Anne-Marie Duff being shoved into a giant ball pool is going to be worth your time on some level.”
It’s only Ann Treneman (Times, ★★), Marianka Swain (Arts Desk, ★★★) and Will Longman (LondonTheatre, ★★★) that can’t quite fathom the frills. It’s a production that “shimmers more than it grips” according to Swain, and “never really seems to find its feet as it flits between trying to create a super-hip vibe, while keeping its traditional appeal” according to Longman.
“This show needs a decluttering expert,” adds Treneman, “and it needs it now.”
Most critics agree with Hemming, though. “The production can be both overly busy and irritatingly arch, some passages feel awkward and others fall completely flat,” she concedes. “But it combines effervescent playfulness with a warm, vivid portrayal of a woman trying to make her way in a tacky world — which seems a good sign-off from Rourke.”
Anne-Marie Duff has had something of a torrid time of late. The last three productions she’s appeared in – Common and Macbeth at the National Theatre, and Heisenberg in the West End – were widely panned by the critics, with Duff considered largely the best thing about them.
Here, the critics like both her, and the production around her. She provides “a coherent, charismatic and chutzpah-powered performance” according to Dominic Cavendish (Telegraph, ★★★★), while Michael Billington (Guardian, ★★★★) calls her performance “exhilarating” and Crompton writes that “the delicacy of Duff’s performance and her comic timing are both extraordinary”.
“Duff looks both beautiful and beautifully battered as the irrepressible Charity,” describes Lukowski. “Her megawatt grin is almost permanently in place, and it doesn’t ever feel like it’s forced: she gives the sense that Charity is genuinely passionate about life.”
“She combines toughness with vulnerability and looks convincingly like a woman who has learned the tools to survive in the world,” observes Tripney, while Treneman reports that “she has brilliant comic timing and charisma to spare”.
This is, remarkably, her debut in a musical, and most critics observe that her voice isn’t exactly polished. It’s a problem for Swain – “both pitch and projection are serious issues,” she says – but, oddly enough, doesn’t seem to bother anyone else.
“Her singing voice is throaty and imperfect, but she uses that as part of her deliberately guileless performance,” describes Hemming, and Crompton concurs, noting that “her singing voice is husky, rather than soaring, but that catch in her throat is infinitely appealing, and her endless, hopeful smile is full of sadness”.
“Can Duff sing?,” asks Mountford. “Kinda. What she does so winningly is give every aspect of the part the full emotional welly.”
Rourke’s reimagining of this classic musical is met with approval then, and Duff’s central performance is too. What about the production’s other aspects? Arthur Darvill’s supporting role as Oscar? Wayne McGregor’s choreography? Adrian Lester’s cameo?
McGregor’s choreography is widely praised, not least for managing to overcome the legacy of Bob Fosse’s original Broadway stylings.
“The difficulty with this show lies in finding an alternative to Bob Fosse’s original dance style, but Wayne McGregor’s choreography does that with great elan,” says Billington. “In Big Spender, he has the dancers draped over a set of ladders, using their bodies to taunt their despised customers.”
It’s “richly expressive” according to Purves, “smart and clever and slightly off-kilter” according to Crompton, and “sassy and inventive” according to Mountford. “Big Spender is especially delicious, all languid posing on ladders from Charity’s fellow dancehall hostesses, who drip with disillusion,” she continues.
Darvill also comes in for praise. He provides a “wonderfully pinched and twitchy performance,” says Hemming, while Tripney calls him “suitably nervy” with “an edge of tragedy”, Crompton admires his “real likeability” and Mountford labels him “nicely buttoned-up”.
And there’s lots of love for Lester. He brings “an irresistible tsunami of charisma to just about stop the show”, says Crompton, while Cavendish calls his turn “roof-raising” and Tripney writes that “Adrian Lester delivers a glorious cameo as cult leader Daddy Brubeck, singing a charisma-soaked, ovary-obliterating version of The Rhythm of Life, while wearing a silver sequinned t-shirt and clutching an impressively massive spliff.”
Four-star reviews everywhere you look – apart from one two-star rating from the Times’ Ann Treneman – ensure Rourke’s denouement at the Donmar Warehouse is a solid hit.
Her raucous, reimagined revival is extravagant and erratic, but most critics can’t help but admire its exuberance. Duff is delightful and makes a virtue of her husky singing voice, Darvill is dapper, McGregor’s choreography astute, and Lester utterly irresistible. And with that, the curtain falls on Rourke’s reign.