Saturday, 30 January 2010

Return to the Menier...

Here is my review for Sweet Charity, which I saw today. It's a really great, enjoyable show, and I couldn't recommend it more. In the end I gave it four out of five stars:

I love the Menier Chocolate Factory. As a matter of fact, I think it’s my favourite theatre. It’s just so quirky, and the other audience members are so friendly that it almost doesn’t matter that you’re seated practically on top of one another. The seating is the only thing I would change about the Menier. The problem is, after about an hour one’s bottom always goes to sleep due to the hard, wooden benches with about 2mm of foam on them. Luckily, Act One was an hour and twenty minutes, and Act Two slightly shorter than that, so my bum wasn’t numb for too long today. Nice benches are the ones at the Young Vic.

I had been to the Menier once before prior to Sweet Charity. This was for Forbidden Broadway, which captured my imagination and was the first show to ever really make me laugh. So when the Menier’s Christmas musical was announced, I decided that I would go and see it. I saw Little Shop of Horrors on tour, La Cage aux Folles in the West End, and totally missed seeing A Little Night Music before it left for Broadway (with hindsight I would have hotfooted it down to the Garrick). This time I, though, I thought I would go and see a Menier musical before it transferred.

We sat in the front row. This was great, there was extra legroom and every single wrinkle was visible on the actors’ faces. It felt as though I was really involved in the show, and not just a spectator from afar, which I loved. It also got me thinking of how amazing La Cage must have been at the Menier. It would have been like being in the actual club. Maybe that was the inspiration....

Anyway. Sweet Charity was originally performed on Broadway in 1966 and swiftly adapted into a film starring the wonderful Shirley Maclaine. I had tried to watch the film last night, before going to the show, but the DVD decided to stop working after 40 minutes. Annoyances of this aside, I can say that from what I saw the film was adapted remarkably accurately from the show, with many of the lines identical. In this respect I’m glad that I actually didn’t finish watching the film, else it would have been like when I saw We Will Rock You for the second time and I knew all the jokes.

Cy Coleman composed Sweet Charity. The only other musical he composed that I have heard of is Barnum, which I have never even listened to. Of course almost everyone is familiar with the song Hey Big Spender, but other than that I was clueless about the score. It had never occurred to me to listen to Coleman’s work before. I can say that I really enjoyed the score; it was magnificently composed and fit the era exceptionally well. The book, by Neil Simon, kept the story moving at a good pace, although the ending did drag a little. The jokes were funny, and there were many quotable lines. Who knew that “Up yours” came from Sweet Charity?

I was nervous about seeing another production directed by Matthew White. I didn’t really like his interpretation of Little Shop of Horrors. The comedic element was absolutely fantastic, but he failed to evoke any empathy towards the characters and the whole thing felt like a bad attempt at a child’s cartoon. I have to say, though, his direction of Sweet Charity was great. The actors were given plenty to do, often exaggerated which really suited the piece, and although many of the characters came across as clich├ęd and one sided that was what the piece called for, in its basic form.

For me, Stephen Mear’s choreography was exceptional. Sweet Charity was originally choreographed by Bob Fosse, who was well ahead of his time when he was working. From Chicago to Cabaret, Fosse’s unique style is always evident. Mear managed to include several of his trademarks, but also modernised it in a way and made it suit the space perfectly.

The lighting design was good, though a little too obvious in places. I thought the set design was perfect, not too much and not too little. Even though the stage at the Menier is very small height was still used in an interesting way, although some of the scene changes seemed to take a little too long.

Tamzin Outhwaite in the title role was a complete surprise. I had heard her name before and read numerous interviews with her, but had never seen her acting in anything. I was pleasantly surprised by her comedic timing, her constant energy and her good vocals. She handled the breakdown capably, but didn’t really make me feel anything, although it was a good performance and my attention was drawn to her whenever she was on stage. Tamzin has actually just come back from a week or so off because of illness, which shows how strong and professional she is – you would never have known from her performance.

Tiffany Graves was good as Helene, even better than when I saw her as Velma Kelly in Chicago. I really want to see her in a role that doesn’t involve playing some kind of dancer who is quite bitchy, though. I really want to see how she would handle a character that the audience is supposed to feel empathy for.

Josefina Gabrielle was great playing both Nickie and Ursula, making the two roles completely different and delivering a consistent performance throughout. Aside from Tamzin, she really stood out from the rest of the cast. Quite a task really, because the whole ensemble were fantastic, always full of energy and handling numerous costume/character changes with ease.

Finally, Mark Umbers was hilarious as Charity’s numerous love interests. I actually didn’t realise that he played all of them until I looked in the programme on the way home.

Overall, Sweet Charity is deserving of a West End transfer, although the atmosphere of the Menier made it a really great, natural setting for the show. I preferred it to the Young Vic revival of Annie Get Your Gun, because even though the story and direction of Annie Get Your Gun were better, and the casts of both shows were about the same, the overall design and appeal of Sweet Charity is far greater.

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