Sweet Charity

Bruiser presents 'Sweet Charity' at the MAC, Belfast.

Bruiser presents 'Sweet Charity' at the MAC, Belfast.

Broadway, Bruiser and Brecht... it’s a tantalising, tricky combination, offering exactly the kind of creative challenge that Belfast-based Bruiser has thrived on during the fifteen busy years of its life. Inspired by its founder and artistic director Lisa May and managed from the onset by actor/comedy writer Stephen Beggs, the company has gone on many a theatrical adventure over the years, forging a highly individual performance style based on its commitment to “minimum set for maximum impact”. It has taken audiences and actors into strange new worlds and ground-breaking experiences, with May demonstrating an admirably sure touch in the breadth and scale of her choice of texts, from A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Oh, What a Lovely War, The Threepenny Opera to Candide, Faustus to Cooking With Elvis, Blood Wedding to Othello.

For the next three years, Bruiser will be one of the associate artists attached to the MAC, Belfast’s exciting new multi-media arts space in which imaginative collaboration is being actively sought and realised. Building on the reputation forged at the Old Museum Arts Centre (OMAC) for importing and generating cutting edge work, the venue’s first co-production is this idiosyncratic new version of Bob Fosse’s big Broadway hit, which was itself born out of a collaboration – Fosse’s conception and choreography, Neil Simon’s enigmatically knowing narrative, Dorothy Fields’s sharp, insightful libretto and Cy Coleman’s uplifting music.

There was never any doubt that the full battery of Bruiser’s hallmark staging and performance expertise would be launched onto this, its first full scale musical. While one might have wished for slightly more imaginative and expansive use of the MAC’s soaring space, a conscious joint decision has clearly been taken by May and designer Diana Ennis to scale down the production to bijou proportions, so as to accommodate a concentrated, fluid, Brechtian-influenced delivery.

Sweet CharityFinding a group of ten performers who can simultaneously look good, sing, dance, act and play instruments to a high level of proficiency takes some doing but the task has been pretty effectively accomplished. The most notable casting success is, happily, in the pivotal character. Laura Pitt-Pulford – last seen in Belfast as the Snake in the Lyric’s Christmas production of The Little Prince – is a delightfully quirky Charity, her skinny, knock-kneed, Twiggy-like persona perfectly in tune with Ennis’s emblematic 1960s set design, all Mary Quant flowers, fluffy clouds, lollipop trees and caption bubbles. One minute she is the arch, pouting club dancer, the object of attention by a succession of predatory males, the next she is the picture of breathless innocence, most notably in the presence of Latino film idol Vittorio Vidal, played with suave self-awareness by Daithi Mac Suibhne. But she really comes into her own when required to portray the gutsy survival instinct, which lies beneath Charity Hope Valentine’s gauche, goofy exterior. Whether nailing to perfection Matthew Reeve’s skilful musical arrangements, playing some jaunty little riffs on the flute or charming the living daylights out of Tomm Coles’s cripplingly shy Oscar, she effortlessly and absolutely steals the show.

On opening night, the early scenes felt a little nervy, a little raw edged, with stress levels manifesting themselves through some stiff individual performances and a few production glitches. The demands this almost three-hour production makes on its cast are monumental. The players rarely leave the stage and are required to move seamlessly through the twists and turns of an emotional storyline, all within the confines of a restricted performance space. Who knows whether May delivered a team talk in the interval, but immediately the second act kicks in, one senses a raising of the bar and a welcome feeling of collective relaxation and control.

To the delight of the packed audience, the big, familiar numbers are energetically and enthusiastically belted out – 'Big Spender', 'The Rhythm of Life', 'Sweet Charity'... But it is the show’s smaller, more reflective moments which linger longest in the memory: Michelle Long’s Nickie and Verity Jones’s Holly sharing a poignant longing for a cleaner, more wholesome future, away from their grubby, shop-soiled existence in the Fandango Ballroom; Charity’s motivational advice to Oscar in their first encounter in a broken elevator - “I’m the bravest individual I have ever met”; and the clever switch from bravado to mortification in 'If They Could See Me Now', as she cowers in a closet while Vidal seduces his long-time lover Ursula (Hannah-Ray Darcey).

Three cheers, then, for this upbeat birthday celebration. Sweet Charity has been given a daring make-over and a whole new identity, which is charming, cute and unmistakeably Bruiser.

Jane Coyle is a Belfast-based freelance arts journalist, critic and screenwriter, who regularly contributes to The Irish Times, The Stage, Culture Northern Ireland and BBC Radio Ulster.

  • Review
  • Theatre

Sweet Charity by Cy Coleman, lyrics by Dorothy Fields and book by Neil Simon

29 May - 17 June, 2012

Produced by Bruiser Theatre Company and the MAC
In The MAC, Belfast

Director: Lisa May

Musical Director: Matthew Reeve

Choreography: Jennifer Rooney

Design: Diana Ennis

Lighting: Sean Paul O’Rawe

With: Jill Cardo, Tomm Coles, Hannah-Ray Darcey, Verity Jones, Nick Lashbrook, Michelle Long, Lorna-Marie Moore, Daithi Mac Suibhne, Laura Pitt-Pulford, Elliott Rennie