Those used to seeing Tamzin Outhwaite on television or in non-musical stage roles will be in for something of a surprise at the Menier Chocolate Factory.
The actress proves her musical theatre pedigree – she was in the 1994 production of Oliver! – by taking the title role in 1966 musical Sweet Charity, revived as the latest musical outing for the Southwark venue that had hits with La Cage Aux Folles and A Little Night Music.
Outhwaite plays Charity, a dance hall hostess in New York who has been used and dumped by a succession of distinctly uncharitable men, but who hasn’t stopped hoping for a happy ending. When she meets the adoring, drippy Oscar, who immediately assumes Charity is a virginal innocent who works in a bank, she thinks the time has finally come when she will be whisked away from the seediness of her workplace to play happy families in the country. But first she has to tell Oscar what she really does for a living.
The story brings to mind both Breakfast At Tiffany’s and Pretty Woman, and, like those, it gives us a heroine who has fallen in with the darker side of society but who remains endearingly vulnerable nonetheless. Though Neil Simon’s book makes clear that, unlike some of her colleagues, Charity is only paid to dance with men, not sleep with them, there remains a blatant sleaziness about the story which seems unusual for a Broadway show; but it is refreshing for it and nicely offsets the more sugary aspects of the tale.
Stephen Mear’s vibrant choreography enhances both sides of the coin. He imbues the famous tune Big Spender with a grubby glamour that would give Chicago a run for its money, extracts all the hippie humour out of Rhythm Of Life and creates an impressive club scene which captures the 1960s perfectly, just stopping short of an Austin Powers parody. The choreography also captures Charity’s contradictions; her dance for If My Friends Could See Me Now mixes child-like excitement with cheeky sexiness.
Matthew Wright’s costume design embraces the period, placing the girls in thigh-skimming shift dresses by day and sequin-clad, barely-there outfits by night as they line up for the attentions of the men at the dance hall.
Among the cast, Mark Umbers convincingly doubles up as the charming and confident Italian film star Vittorio Vidal and the nervy, specs-wearing Oscar; and Josefina Gabrielle seems to enjoy herself immensely as well-worn dance hostess Nickie and melodramatic actress Ursula. The ensemble as a whole attacks Mear’s choreography with vigour.
But the night belongs to Outhwaite, who more than endears us to this funny, loveable, unrefined – in Charity’s own words, “lowbrow” – woman who will not give up her happy ending whatever life throws at her. The poignant finale shows that that although she is indeed Sweet Charity, she has more guts and determination than ‘sweet’ gives her credit for.