Donmar Warehouse, London ★★★★★
WHAT a way to go. This farewell production by Josie Rourke, the Donmar’s artistic director since 2012, is sensational. It’s a classic musical with an acerbic new twist. Dark, chic and witty, it is emotionally devastating as well as soaringly euphoric. In the title role Anne-Marie Duff grabs your heart, squeezes hard and won’t let go.
The story is as bitter as it is sweet: Charity is an eternally optimistic dance hall hostess who’s exploited and abused by men and the rueful butt of every cruel joke. Rourke tackles its outdated sexual politics head-on, offsetting the sizzle and laughter with anger and frustration.
The trippy 1960s setting is inspired by Andy Warhol’s Factory, and, if occasionally cluttered, it’s stylish, shiny and hard-edged. In Big Spender, Charity and fellow dancers parade for groping, leering punters in choreography by Wayne McGregor that is sharp, minimal and with moves hinting at S&M and violence.
Arthur Darvill as Oscar, Charity’s latest romantic misadventure, is enragingly good; a selfish manchild disguised as an adorably geeky good guy. Meanwhile Adrian Lester — in a guest appearance as charismatic preacher Daddy Brubeck — delivers a stupendously sexy Rhythm of Life. (Other actors playing the role include Beverley Knight and panto legend Clive Rowe.)
Duff’s not a crack singer or dancer, but her voice has a gorgeous, husky soulfulness. With her eyes brimming with pain and longing and her goofy grin bravely bright, she’s a survivor; her dogged hopefulness giving her a dazzling radiance.
This is a show of grit and glitter. Just like true love, it sometimes hurts — and it’s fabulous.