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Sweet Charity review at Watermill Theatre, Newbury – ‘a valiant updating’

Gemma Sutton in Sweet Charity at the Watermill Theatre, Newbury
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Unlike most big Broadway successes of the 1950s and 1960s, Sweet Charity was set in the period in which it was written. Its terse, witty book was written by of-the-moment playwright Neil Simon, Cy Coleman’s score incorporated the musical idiom of the age and Dorothy Field’s lyrics were both punchy and pertinent.

These days, more than 50 years since its premiere, it could easily feel very much of its time but director Paul Hart has attempted to create a version that has something to say to the #MeToo generation.

The Fandango Ballroom feels more like a lap dancing club, the Rich Man’s Frug edges toward a house music frenzy and there’s an element of rap funk fusion to the Rhythm of Life. These relatively superficial changes are a bit hit-and-miss though Sarah Travis and Charlie Ingles’ orchestrations are both intelligent, refreshing and fun.

The show is reliant on its central character and Gemma Sutton’s Charity is a revelation. Vulnerability has been replaced with determination and coated with a layer of optimism. Sutton’s Charity isn’t just thick-skinned, she’s an iron-plated survivor who uses the mantra I’m the Bravest Individual to negotiate a life on the grubby outskirts of the sex industry.

Vivien Carter as Nicky and Emma-Jane Morton as Helene provide strong support and the production vilifies Charity’s abhorrent treatment at the hands of men, notably Alex Cardall’s deceptively smug Oscar.

Hart’s actor-musician production hasn’t solved the show’s problematic ending but it does provide a salient reminder that truly great musicals can and will transcend the passing of time.

Mark Shenton: Reinterpreting ‘problematic’ classics keeps them alive

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Verdict
Valiant updating of a classic Broadway musical that may set the tone for future productions
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