SWEET CHARITY
Victoria Palace Theatre, London SW1
Opened 19 May, 1998

Audiences at West End musical opening nights bless them: they so want to be wowed. So, in the opening minutes of Sweet Charity on Tuesday, their responses seemed to run: Hey, these girls can stand on a revolve without falling over wild applause! Hey, it's Bonnie Langford's bum wild applause! Hey, her lover's just pushed her into Central Park Lake applause just that worrying bit too wild, there...

Langford carries a huge burden as the ever-sanguine dancehall hostess in this revival of Bob Fosse's musical, and no-one can be more conscious than she of the cruel stigma of simply being Bonnie Langford and of having been for so long: not really mutton dressed as lamb (despite sporting facial makeup of an almost Garland/Minnelli-like thickness), she is more lamb which has spent an age in the window display. She has energy, discipline and far more than her fair share of talent anyone who can execute a routine such as that for "I'm A Brass Band" and then slip effortlessly back into song is blessed with both ability and peak physical condition but all those years as the postbox-smiling little girl have left their mark, and at root she finds herself unable to move too far from this mode. Sure, she has Charity Hope Valentine's starry-eyed, bouncy indefatigability down pat, but Charity is also tempting and alluring; when her neurotic new beau Oscar (Cornell John), met in a trapped lift, describes her as a "poetical virgin", it must seem the height of delusion, but Langford for all that she wiggles her equatorial and southern regions at us, for all that she tries brazen seduction on ageing Latin heart-throb Vittorio (Mark Wynter) cannot come over as remotely sinful.

This problem affects the show as a whole. To put it bluntly, one should not be able to watch so much of Bob Fosse's choreography without feeling at all embarrassingly aroused. Chet Walker has a fine company make all the right moves with impressive vigour and precision, but not even the taxi-dancers' flaunting of themselves in "Big Spender" (a number which ought to combine sheer desperation with efficient enticement) begins to register. It is an admirable show Cy Coleman's songs and Neil Simon's book alone would see to that but, for all Walker's and director Carol Metcalfe's efforts, for all that Johanne Murdock and (particularly) Jane Fowler match Langford for energy, not at all a seductive one as it should also be. This is a good-time show, sure enough, but not with the doubleness of entendre that the "Big Spender" girls want us to believe.

Written for the Financial Times.

Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.

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