The UEA Drama Society have provided me with some entertaining moments and innovative new works in the shows that I have reviewed, but their latest production is more ambitious in terms of scale while being more conventional in origin.
Sweet Charity is a large scale musical first produced in 1966 by Cy Coleman, Dorothy Fields and Neil Simon which is itself derived from the 1957 Federico Fellini film Nights of Cabiria. The film was an earthy Italian production telling the story of a prostitute looking for love, unsurprisingly the American text for the musical is somewhat bowdlerised and our heroine Charity Hope Valentine (Ella D’Arcy Jones) is a nightclub hostess who dances for paying clients. While the story does describe a world of transactional relationships this production offers nothing too tawdry for a family audience to enjoy.
Charity dances for tips but dreams of romance. At the very start we see her putting words into the mouth of her sullen boyfriend as an attempt to promote his wooing of her, instead he pushes her in a lake and nicks her handbag. Her ‘family’ of fellow dancers poke fun at her naivety but offer her support and friendship throughout yet they all seem to be cynically doomed to stay in their trade forever.
Charity has a little adventure with a film star who picks her up in a cafe – and here this production has a twist as the originally male star is now Vittoria (Ash Strain) who has had a tiff with her live in lover Ursula (Phil Edwards). Vittoria takes her to dinner and then back to her apartment where Charity demands a souvenir of her visit to show the other girls. However Ursula returns apologising so Charity is bundled into a closet and has to watch Ursula and Vittoria making love, before being escorted out of the closet the next morning.
Charity resolves to broaden her cultural horizons and finds herself stuck in a broken down college lift with shy tax accountant Oscar Lindquist (Seàn Bennett) who has a panic attack as the lights out out. She calms and comforts him while also establishing that he is unmarried. When they escape he take her to a frankly loopy hippie church where events are conducted by Daddy Brubeck (Sabrina Hassan). They date for some weeks and get closer and decide to marry. But will he overcome his worry about her previous lifestyle?
This 18 strong cast give a lively and hugely enjoyable performance supported by a 13 strong on stage orchestra. The music is lively and the dancing complex and well executed, even though for some of the cast this is a new set of stage challenges to be mastered.
Ella D’Arcy Jones is on stage almost throughout the show and her enthusiasm and energy do not falter for an instant. She gives Charity an infectious humanity and wins over the audience from the very start. She manages to remain credible in spite of the moral confusion of the role of Charity as part streetwise nightclub girl and part innocent romantic. She radiates an energy and warmth to the rest of this large cast and helps them to keep focused even in the most minor of vignettes.
Her two main showgirl pals are Nicky and Helene (Keanna Bloomfield and Ellie Martland) who combine suitably world weary resignation with some comic lines and effortless singing. The Director Molly Farley has clearly taken time to help each cast member develop a clear and distinct character, sometimes two or three from the same actor. I liked George Majin as Herman, the tetchy owner of the failing Fandango nightclub, who tries to be authoritarian but cannot stop his human side popping out. Ash Strain clearly enjoyed the role of film star vamp Vittoria Vidal and topped her contribution with a fine bit of singing, while Phil Edwards was convincing as her on off paramour Ursula.
This lively show is great fun and will send you home smiling. The cast were perhaps a little self conscious at the very start but soon got their confidence and threw themselves enthusiastically into roles great and small. Changing the film star from male to female perks up this show, but it remains rooted in heteronormative American values where a woman needs a man to be complete and stable marriage is their ultimate aim. While the end of the show completes a circular theme with the start it is also rather dispiriting, giving credence to the popular prejudice that women in the entertainment industry are somehow immoral. With the lively music and action of this show it would be nice to see an updating which reflected the real perceptions of women today with a more uplifting denouement.
It would be good to see this show in a proper theatre venue with decent front of house facilities. While the performing space is well equipped and comfortable the waiting space and audience facilities in the UEA Drama studio make the arrival and interval times a bit of a trial. However none of my discomfort reflects on the achievement of this University company of young performers who work well together to give us a very entertaining evening. The simple and straightforward staging has created a show which could easily be taken on tour, and with all the work that the crew have put into it they deserve a wider audience.
© Julian Swainson 2019