With its blistering, brassy score, its irresistible title character and a script crammed with zingers, Sweet Charity always seems like a sweet deal. Until, that is, you see it again and remember that the sexual politics of this tale of a New York taxi dancer are 20 years out of date. Times have changed, but it’ll never be time to throw away a show this good – and so for her final production at the Donmar, where she has been artistic director since 2012, Josie Rourke has chosen to tackle the musical with her customary intelligence and flair. And what a dazzler she has come up with. She tackles the sexist assumptions that underlie Neil Simon’s book head-on, and reworks the ending to give us a woman on the verge of finally seizing control of her life and changing it, for keeps. And Anne-Marie Duff redefines the role of Charity, with a performance that is vulnerable yet tough, clever yet self-deprecating. She’s full of yearning and possibility, and sick of being everyone’s fool.
There’s a hard edge to this version, a refusal to sugarcoat, and if there’s still a funny side to Charity’s misadventures, it’s at least as sour as it is sweet. Robert Jones’ design is inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory. It is white, clinical, stalked by beatnik figures in black roll necks. There are oversized Campbell’s soup cans and silver balloons. Duff sings the first of Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields’ scintillating numbers, "You Should See Yourself," gliding back and forth on a swing above a Central Park pond represented by a cylinder filled with plastic bubbles. Her voice, while not a conventional musical-theatre belt, is soulful, husky and wonderfully expressive, and there’s both a brilliant wit and a rawness to her portrayal. There’s a crushing lack of self-esteem in her frequent apologies for herself that brings tears pricking to the eyes – especially in "If They Could See Me Now," her star-struck collision with a fading Italian film star, which Duff dances with gawky charm. But it’s matched by a sense of groping towards an alternative. "There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This" becomes a resolute anthem of liberation, and it’s electrifying.
Wayne McGregor’s spiky choreography nods to Bob Fosse’s famous original, but it has its own revealing touches. The girls of the Fandango Ballroom are unequivocally sex workers, and they perform minimal moves that sometimes suggest violence and abuse as well as sleazy self-advertisement. While she sings "Charity’s Soliloquy," a litany of her experience of exploitative rats, Duff is groped and slobbered over by punters. "Rich Man’s Frug," the nightclub dance-floor scene, is sensationally reworked with a whole posse of Warhol lookalikes, male and female, busting groovy swinging 60s moves. It’s wildly entertaining. The acerbic yet wistful "Baby, Dream Your Dream" sees Debbie Kurup’s Helene and Lizzie Connolly’s Nickie dismantling multiple dolls’ houses nested inside one another like matryoshka dolls. And the all-male chorus that backs Duff’s Charity during the euphoric "I’m a Brass Band" arrives dressed in fragments of stars and stripes, like the shards of a broken American Dream.
Arthur Darvill is terrific as Oscar Lindquist, the nerdish neurotic who comes on like a nice guy who’ll finally be worthy of Charity’s heart, and proves to be anything but. Darvill manages to make him appealing and attractive so that we can readily believe Duff falls for him. But there’s something stomach-turning in his admission that he spotted her at the dancehall, with more than a hint of a suspicion that he might be a regular john at such joints. And his slippery morals and selfishness are so genuinely unpleasant that, while Charity’s pain is devastating, we can’t feel entirely sorry that they don’t end up together. A much sexier proposition is Adrian Lester as the first of a string of guest performers playing Daddy Brubeck, the charismatic evangelical preacher, who all but sets the stage on fire. This is a surprisingly intense evening, an emotional rollercoaster that thrills, bruises, gives you vertigo and leaves you breathless. It’s like no Charity you’ve seen before, and it’s all the better for it. It’s a final triumph for Rourke – what a way to say goodbye.