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Sweet Charity review starring Anne-Marie Duff at Donmar Warehouse, London – ‘an exuberant production’

Anne-Marie Duff in Sweet Charity at Donmar Warehouse, London. Photo: Johan Persson

With evident glee, Josie Rourke has pulled out all the stops for her final production as artistic director at the Donmar Warehouse.

Andy Warhol’s Factory is the clearly inspiration for her throw-everything-at-it production of Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields’ and Neil Simon’s 1966 musical, about a hapless, ever-optimistic New York taxi dancer. Robert Jones’ set includes a ball pit, giant Brillo boxes and most of the tin foil in WC1. 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. It always feels like she’s having a good time though.

Anne-Marie Duff plays Charity Hope Valentine in a silver mini-dress and fishnets with permanently hopeful smile and a warm unguarded laugh. While her singing lacks technical polish and precision, her voice has a husky, lived-in quality that really suits the role. As life delivers knock after knock, and men perennially let her down, she remains resilient, even as her eyes glitter with tears. She combines toughness with vulnerability and looks convincingly like a woman who has learned the tools to survive in the world.

Alongside her, Arthur Darvill is suitably nervy as the neurotic Oscar, the man who Charity initially pins all her hopes on, who she believes will be her ticket to happiness, but who turns out to be just as bad as the rest, worse, unable to get over the fact she doesn’t live up to his standards of purity. There’s an edge of tragedy to him too, a sense that he’d like to be a different man if he could. Martin Marquez is warm and seemingly genuine in his tenderness towards Charity as aging Italian movie star Vittorio Vidal.

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 sequined t-shirt and clutching an impressively massive spliff. (The role is being rotated throughout the run, with Beverley Knight and Le Gateau Chocolat among others due to perform).

Wayne McGregor’s playful choreography combines jerky puppet-dances and mechanised movements. Big Spender becomes a dead-eyed carousel, while his version of the Rich Man’s Frug is performed by a troupe of dancers in matching blonde Warhol wigs and gold boots. Throughout Rourke makes the most of the venue’s capacity for intimacy.

Sweet Charity is an odd choice in many ways. It contains some cracking numbers, but the way it treats its protagonist, the humiliation it heaps on her, is exhausting. 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 have lots of it, to revel in the contents of her toy-box before she hands it over to someone else.

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Josie Rourke’s exuberant take on the 1960s musical features a tough, warm and vulnerable performance from Anne-Marie Duff