Sweet Charity is a difficult pill to swallow. The classic Broadway musical puts the character of Charity Hope Valentine, the eternally optimistic New York taxi dancer, centre stage only to heap humiliation and rejection on her.
The 1966 show, with a book by Neil Simon, is both of its time – it’s shot through with a cynicism about the counterculture and is decidedly pre-feminist – and yet not exactly trapped in aspic – Charity is repeatedly promised things by the men she encounters only to be let down repeatedly and rejected for not meeting some impossible standard of purity.
Unlike the recent Watermill Theatre version, which updated the setting, or the 2016 Royal Exchange production, in which the role of Daddy Brubeck was played by a woman, or Leigh Silverman’s stripped-back staging in New York, Bill Buckhurst’s production is a frustratingly straight-forward one, revelling in but not interrogating the 1960s aesthetic, with its shimmering minidresses and clouds of cigarette smoke.
This is the first musical to be staged at Nottingham Playhouse in over a decade and the theatre has splashed out. Takis’ design situates the band on two podiums on either side of the stage. Sections of the set rotate to form the Fandango ballroom and the opulent apartment of Vittorio Vidal, the Italian movie star who picks Charity up, complete with a headboard shaped like a golden swan. At times, the podiums light up to form the New York skyline.
At the heart of it all is Rebecca Trehearn’s Charity. She gives a winning performance with a clear, strong voice and a smile that rarely falters, even when she’s conveying how overwhelming it can feel to be caught in the headlamps of male attention, and how devastating it can be when that light dims. She contentedly chomps on a sandwich while hiding in the closet of Vidal’s apartment, and her smile cracks only briefly when she’s cast aside by neurotic Oscar (Marc Elliott, magnificently jittery), the man she hoped would whisk her off to the suburbs.
The best moments in the production are the group numbers with Charity’s fellow hostesses. Choreographer Alistair David turns Big Spender into a robotic production line dance, with the women going through the motions, caressing their thighs, blank eyed. The poignancy of Something Better Than This is emphasised by the design, which counterpoints the 1960s glitz with grubby ceilings and dingy lodgings. Poverty keeps these women trapped.
But the production never completely gets to grips with the seediness and sadness of their predicament, the fact that these women spend their nights “defending themselves to music”. The opening scene in which Charity is pushed into a lake is played for laughs and the way the musical equates virtue with suffering goes unpacked. Though Charity’s hopes get dashed again and again, the tone of the show remains more sweet than bitter.
Yet Trehearn’s mixture of resilience, vulnerability and amiability, is never less than captivating. Her performance, coupled with the sheer skill of the cast, elevates the production.