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Sweet Charity review at the Royal Exchange Theatre, Manchester – ‘triumphantly reclaimed’

Kaisa Hammarlund in Sweet Charity at the Manchester Royal Exchange. Photo: Richard Davenport

"I'm a brass band / I'm a harpsichord / I'm a clarinet! / I'm the Philadelphia Orchestra / I'm the Modern Jazz Quartet!", sings the ever-hopeful Charity Hope Valentine when she thinks she has finally found someone to love her.

As played by the fabulous Kaisa Hammarlund, she's a one-woman orchestra of overwhelming feeling and organic movement that rings utterly true.

With vulnerability pouring out of her, she has the entire audience loving her from the start, but her career choice in what someone euphemistically calls "the body business" as a dance hall hostess makes that naked need simultaneously sweet and sad. "Who dances?" someone else says of their work. "We defend ourselves to music." But Charity's own defences are down all the time. She's destined to have her heart broken time and again, and so are we watching her.

Hammarlund takes an impressive career step forward playing this broken but forever resilient character, and another vintage Broadway musical of the 1960s is triumphantly reclaimed, in the wake of impressive recent revivals like Hair in Manchester, and Funny Girl and She Loves Me in London that also hail from that decade.

The secret to its success is that director Derek Bond acknowledges and respects its period charm, but also evokes the tender truth it rests on through the gritty choreographic language of Aletta Collins.

With an onstage band visible behind a glass screen, James Perkins' design for this in-the-round space is playful (a miniature fun-fair ride in the sky dissolves to a full size one on the stage). But it’s the cast who populate the stage most vividly – a bold decision to cast a woman as the Rhythm of Life church preacher Daddy Brubeck pays rich dividends in Josie Benson's vividly insinuating performance. Also wonderful are Daniel Crossley's Oscar, and Cat Simmons and Holly Dale Spencer as fellow hostesses Helene and Nickie.

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Verdict
One of the great 1960s musicals resonates anew thanks to a stunning central performance from Kaisa Hammarlund
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