‘Sweet Charity’ at the Oxford Playhouse: an ambitious trip through Sixties counterculture

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Ben Darwent

A freezing Wednesday night in January felt like a fitting night to watch a show about an Italian prostitute’s constantly thwarted dreams. At least, that was the source material – Fellini’s screenplay for Nights of Cabiria – before it was sanitised for a Broadway audience in 1966 to become Sweet Charity. At the time, Cy Coleman’s score and Bob Fosse’s iconic choreography were enough to sustain a show beset by erratic energy levels and an overall sense of inertia.

Nowadays, it’s even harder for modern productions to fight against these structural problems. Halfwit Theatre try valiantly, with an excellent creative team and some star performances, to imbue the production with the necessary energy and charm. Their Sweet Charity is enjoyable, with many high points, but is held back by the inconsistencies of the source material and the variable energy levels of the cast.

Georgia Crowther

Opening night nerves were fairly evident during the first half of the show, causing the ensemble to feel low-energy in their movements and interactions with each other. The song ‘Big Spender’, which should have been one of the most memorable numbers, felt a little flat and awkward. Even the band didn’t seem completely on form initially. These issues were largely remedied by the second half, and big dance numbers like ‘Rhythm of Life’ were performed with the joy and energy that had been missing. Despite the patchy energy levels, star performances from some of Oxford’s most consistently strong players carried the show through. Laurence Belcher’s Oscar easily charmed the audience with his bumbling humour, while Jonny Dancinger’s over-the-top Vittorio, with his Mario accent and fussy moustache, was a joy to watch. Special mention must go, of course, to Greta Thompson, who handled the demands of the role of Charity with aplomb. In a dynamic performance which showcased her versatility, she was equally effervescent in belting through exhausting dance numbers and heartfelt laments. Chorus scene-stealers like Jake Woods and Alex Buchanan also raised the energy levels and delivered some of the biggest laughs of the night.

In many ways, choreography was the real star of the show. It was refreshing to see movement at the forefront of a Playhouse musical in a way it hasn’t been since last year’s Anything Goes. Olivia Charley’s choreography, although heavily reliant on Fosse’s original work, was consistently interesting and invigorating to watch – if, perhaps, a little too challenging for some of the cast. The trippy moves went down well with the audience, and brought the cast together as a unit very effectively in larger numbers. ‘Rhythm of Life’ was a highlight for its irrepressible energy and motion, when compared to the more muted ‘Hey Big Spender’ or ‘The Rich Man’s Frug’. The involvement of many OUCD members also elevated the overall skill level in movement considerably.

Aesthetically, the show was consistently strong and cohesive. Alex Taylor’s Escher-esque set was one of the best student sets I’ve seen – simple yet effective, and creating a pleasing number of different levels and settings for the cast to interact on. Seamlessly interacting with this was Jennifer Hurd’s gorgeous lighting design. The wide and varied colour palette was striking, and the use of light boxes incorporated into the set as New York windows added an interesting dimension to the overall effect. The interaction of the colourful lighting with Christina Hill’s vivid costumes set up the most memorable dance numbers to deliver a real punch. The costuming of ‘Rhythm of Life’, set in a hippie ‘church’, was a particular highlight, as well as the girl-power ‘There’s Gotta Be Something Better than This’. The styling was similarly excellent – even from a distance, the well-executed Sixties hair and makeup made an impression. The sound design by Nat Davies was largely solid, save for a few missed line pickups and mic pops. In a musical with a cast of this size, with a minimal budget, this was a real achievement. Directors Nils Behling and Caitlin Kelly, as well as the design team, should be congratulated on achieving such a striking and engaging aesthetic throughout.

On the whole, Sweet Charity was an enjoyable romp through the underbelly of New York in the Sixties. With so many incredibly strong players in the company, it is easy to imagine Halfwit Theatre moving past the less assured moments of opening night to deliver a confident rest of the run.