Sweet Charity, by Neil Simon, directed by Derek Bond; The Royal Exchange, January 6 2017.
It took about five years for the word ‘screwball’ to shift from baseball slang (1928) to the way in which a certain kind of comedy was viewed (some wag used the word to describe a Carol Lombard film back in 1933). For a decade or so, any slightly frenetic comedy featuring a battle of the sexes, farcical situations, giddy repartee and social classes in conflict was classed as screwball (so think: It Happened One Night, Bringing up Baby, Some Like It Hot). What does this have to do with Sweet Charity, the revival of Neil Simon’s 60s musical at the Royal Exchange? Well Sweet Charity is about as screwball as screwball gets.
A lot of this is down to Kaisa Hammarlund’s performance as Charity. She channels Irene Dunne and Katherine Hepburn and Claudette Colbert and Jean Arthur and every lovable ditz you ever saw to create a sweet, gutsy New York heroine, who picks herself up when she’s down (within minutes of meeting her, the latest in what we assume is a long line of gents pushes her into the drink in Central Park and steals her dough), whose glass is usually half full (a night in a film star’s apartment as said film star beds another woman is merely an opportunity to share a rousing rendition of If My Friends Could See Me Now) and whose friends rally round whenever a pick-me-up is called for (Cat Simmons and Holly Dale Spencer’s take on Baby Dream Your Dream is a highlight).
At its heart, Sweet Charity is an unlikely love story as Charity finds herself sharing a broken elevator with an uptight accountant sort who mistakes her for someone who works in a bank (rather than someone who dances in a nightclub). They share a handful of moments (a lovely scene in which the pair are trapped in a hot air balloon managed to combine the joyfully naïve comedy of Father Ted with the kind of skewed visual laughs you’d more typically get in Reeves and Mortimer), that will have you thinking we’re in standard rom-com territory – but you’ll be surprised again by the climax.
In lots of ways it’s the almost perfect antidote to the gloomy, soon to be Trumped world in which we live. There are moments in Derek Bond’s production that recall Austin Powers (the Royal Exchange is a surprisingly good venue that has you thinking all musicals should be performed in the round), sassy back-and-forths that are straight out of Rowan & Martin’s Laugh-In and enough hinted-at seedy underbelly to tip a wink in the direction of Cabaret (although Neil Simon could never embrace the darkness as well as Bob Fosse). Sweet Charity is a confection, however bright and bubbly, but maybe the times call for exactly this kind of light distraction.