How many people can you fit onto the Watermill stage? This question popped into my head as I watched a 12-strong cast of fiercely talented actors perform a complicated dance routine - while also acting as the orchestra - all in the theatre's intimate space. When all the performers are dancing on the intimate stage it is an impressive sight, even if it makes one nervous that they may crash into each other.
Sweet Charity premiered on Broadway in 1966 and proved a smash hit, leading to an Oscar-nominated film and a heavy theatrical rotation. Its presence as the Watermill's summer show is in keeping with the similarly strong pieces revived at the Watermill such musicals as A Little Night Music, Crazy For You and Oliver!. The musical tells the story of Charity, a dancer at the Fandango Ballroom, who dreams of escaping to a better life and finding true love. It's a slim storyline to hang the music on but when the collection of songs includes such big hitters as 'Big Spender', 'If My Friends Could See Me Now', and 'Rhythm of Life' it doesn't prove that big of an issue.
This musical relies heavily on the talents of its leading lady, with most other characters lacking the depth and complexity of Charity. Gemma Sutton is well-cast in the part, an accomplished musical theatre performer who brings out much of the humour of the character without turning Charity into a caricature. She is ably supported by an ensemble packed with fabulous performers, with standouts including Elliot Harper and Alex Cardall, (as the men who come into Charity's life) and Vivien Carter and Emma Jane Morton as her fellow dancers. It has to be said that all the performers bring personality to the roles they play, no matter how fleeting their presence is in the story.
Where the production falls down are its attempts to be relevance. The programme references the #MeToo movement and a modern setting, but the musical really doesn't feel as attuned to current gender politics; for instance, Charity's pursuit to being a better person is admirable but the text mostly steers away from the seedier elements of the work its characters are involved in. I admire any production that seeks to enter the Time's Up conversation but I'm not sure that Sweet Charity is the platform for this. The production also missteps in its final moments, ending on a note that strives to be uncomfortably realistic but instead feels awkward. Striving for relevance seems misplaced with a musical that feels so firmly placed in the culture of 60s
The production as a whole is a hoot, played at a frantic speed that means the evening flies by. The set gives plenty of space for the performers to whirl across the stage whilst also allowing for a set of mirrors to be creatively used. I particularly liked how they were turned into revolving doors in one scene before quickly being transformed into an elevator. And while I think this is too slim and traditional a musical to really drill into today's issues, it still shows the ambition that director Paul Hart has instilled in his tenure as the Artistic Director at the Watermill.