There’s not a lot better than this: Halfwit Theatre’s new production of Sweet Charity opened last night at the Oxford Playhouse to rapturous (and rightfully deserved) applause. Right from the opening scene, humour, stylised dance and excellent acting are married in an evening of entertainment and emotional range: the story of Charity Hope Valentine (a dance hostess in 1960s New York) and her pursuit of lasting romance – “without true love, life has no purpose” – has been wittily portrayed by a company of impressively versatile actors.
Greta Thompson produced a compelling, energetic and hugely versatile performance as the eponymous Charity: no little effort given her near constant presence on-stage. Playing Charity almost as a proto-Kimmy Schmidt, similarly filled with unbounded optimism, wrinkled expressions and an unbreakable spirit, Thompson’s fine voice and impressive dancing swept the audience along on her quest to find true love. “If My Friends Could See Me Now” proved a perfect demonstration of her clear control over both these departments, while she delivered consistently humorous and well-balanced scenes opposite a range of supporting characters.
Although her delivery was slightly garbled at moments, this is small criticism, especially when one considers the pace with which this snappy and sharp New York dialogue has to be delivered. Despite the risk that such a relentlessly upbeat protagonist could be reduced to a one-note performance, there was more than enough charm, humour and variety of expression here to dispel any such criticism: there was never a dull moment with Thompson on-stage.
Thompson was ably assisted throughout this well paced production by a hugely entertaining and versatile supporting cast: Jonny Danciger’s (Vittorio Vidal) “Too Many Tomorrows” was beautifully and powerfully sung, while his preceding scene opposite Thompson was nicely played (with a solid Italian accent to boot), even if the character could be played with a little more arrogance. Ellie MacDonald (Helene) and Grace Albery (Nickie) modulated convincingly between pathos and humour, with some excellent harmonising (“Baby, Dream Your Dream”) and masterly movement (“There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This”).
Freddie Crowley’s Daddy Brubeck was soaked through with charisma (“The Rhythm of Life”), and despite not possessing the strongest voice in the world, his energetic, wide-eyed delivery was near-perfect for the character: his was a captivating presence. Similarly striking were the minor performances from the ensemble: countless individual lines were delivered with personality and variation, something for which the chorus members and the director deserve huge praise – comedy was extracted from every possible moment in the ensemble sequences, however brief, whether it was a walk, an off-hand comment or a well-employed accent.
Perhaps the production’s strongest facet, however, was its physicality, and more specifically, its dance numbers. Laurence Belcher (Oscar) exemplified this trend with an outstanding physical performance in the elevator scene: never overplaying his hand, but rather carefully using his voice and body for maximum effect, his choices elicited huge quantities of laughter from the audience.
As for the dance sequences: the choice to incorporate the original Fosse choreography and more – note the opening scene of frozen frug poses – into this production was hugely brave and, given the skill with which these angular and ultra-stylised movements were handled, a brilliant decision. The “Rich Man’s Frug” sequence was enormously impressive, and the assurance with which the cast performed was wonderful to watch. Similarly, other set-pieces, such as “I’m A Brass Band” and “I Love To Cry at Weddings”, were skillfully choreographed, using the whole breadth and depth of the stage, while the iconic “Big Spender” was powerfully performed.
The only problem with such accurately designed and specific movements is that mistakes are all the clearer to see, and thus, despite the low frequency of visible mistakes, rare slips did stand out. Yet even small moments – like the swimming motions in “The Rhythm of Life” – added to the sense that this was a dance production expertly imagined and controlled: the production team – and especially Olivia Charley – deserve heaps of praise for their work.
Nils Behling’s direction has created a snappy production that never lagged: scene changes were subtle and swift, and dialogue was delivered with pace. I particularly enjoyed the changes made to the final scene, a choice which augmented many of the show’s themes and reinforced the overarching message of empowerment with which the directorial team have sought to colour their production. The stage-design was minimalist but effective: environment was conjured up with a few basic pieces of set, coupled with some angular cutouts of the New York skyline. Little more was needed. Given it was opening night, errors were noticeable but perhaps unavoidable and irrelevant: the occasional mic disruption was annoying and there were a few moments of forgotten or poorly-timed lines.
Perhaps most conspicuous, however, was the propensity for mumbled lines: New York accents aside – the delivery of which varied throughout the cast – jokes were sometimes lost on the audience and the rare moment was plain inaudible. In terms of the former, it could be argued that the script – Norman Mailer jokes included – has not aged particularly well in places, explaining the muted response of the audience at times. Nevertheless, some of the supporting cast could benefit from slowing their delivery for the advantage of clarity. There is clearly a trade-off to be made between pacey, smart dialogue and clear-cut delivery, but last night some of the script’s finest jokes were lost somewhere in transmission.
These are minor qualms at best, in what is otherwise a spectacular production of Sweet Charity: it has heart, humour and a great deal of fun, alongside an eye-catching and versatile central performance from Greta Thompson. There is a huge amount to enjoy in this clever and artfully constructed show, and the entire production team should be delighted in the results of almost a year’s hard work: such confidence in both design and delivery is surely rarely seen on the Oxford stage.