Sincerity: Anne-Marie Duff in 'Sweet Charity'
Sincerity: Anne-Marie Duff in 'Sweet Charity' © Johan Persson

Next time you leave a job, make like Josie Rourke and line up a giant ball pit, a host of cheerleaders and Adrian Lester in a silver-sequinned T-shirt shimmying sweetly and waving a spliff the size of a policeman’s truncheon. Rourke’s final production as the Donmar’s artistic director is a high-concept reworking of the classic 1966 musical Sweet Charity (by Neil Simon, Cy Coleman and Dorothy Fields) about the loveable and loveless dance hall hostess Charity Hope Valentine. It’s defiantly unconventional, riotously over the top and a lot of fun.

Faced with the challenge of evoking multiple locations on the tiny Donmar stage, Rourke and designer Robert Jones contain the whole story within a replica of Andy Warhol’s Factory, with each new setting improvised on the spot. The ball pit stands in for the lake; a sheet of material and an overhead projector suggest the lift in which Charity and fiancé-to-be Oscar get trapped. Hip and languid individuals lurk at the back of the foil-wrapped set, shift furniture with studied ennui and shape-shift into bored commuters, supercilious nightclub-goers and stoned cult members in “Rhythm of Life” (led by a succession of guest artists — Adrian Lester on opening night). The sexist world of the mid-1960s is channelled through the counterculture, mixing invention with sharp cynicism and throwing Charity’s sweet sincerity into even greater relief.

Anne-Marie Duff, irresistible as Charity, manages that very difficult task of making niceness work. For all her character’s eight years trapped in a soul-destroying job, she projects a gleaming optimism, easy warmth and a poignant yearning for affection — though with each rejection both she and her silver minidress look a little more battered. Her singing voice is throaty and imperfect, but she uses that as part of her deliberately guileless performance. Her genuine delight at visiting the apartment of film star Vittorio Vidal (Martin Marquez) is infectious: when she delivers “If They Could See Me Now”, it’s not as a polished dance routine but as the sheer exuberance of a girl so thrilled at a bit of luck she breaks your heart. It’s the modesty of her dreams that gets you: when happiness seems finally to be within her grasp, it’s as the wife of nerdy tax accountant Oscar.

The production is set in Andy Warhol's Factory
The production is set in Andy Warhol's Factory © Johan Persson

She — and indeed Oscar in Arthur Darvill’s wonderfully pinched and twitchy performance — are stranded: caught between the swinging Sixties and endemic sexism, conformity and inequality. Even the sparkiest girls in the club, aspiring to better things, can see no further than becoming a secretary to a powerful man. There’s a cold bitterness to the sweetness here, expressed in Wayne McGregor’s choreography: the disillusioned dancers in Charity’s workplace practically snarl their way through “Big Spender”, striking sultry poses like mannequins in a shop window.

The production can be both overly busy and irritatingly arch, some passages feel awkward and others fall completely flat. It will doubtless infuriate some. But it combines effervescent playfulness with a warm, vivid portrayal of a woman trying to make her way in a tacky world — which seems a good sign-off from Rourke.

★★★★☆

To June 8, donmarwarehouse.com

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