THEATRE / Cramped style: Paul Taylor on Sweet Charity, a big Broadway musical in a small Battersea theatre

Phil Willmott's production of Sweet Charity started life at London's tiny Man in the Moon theatre and you can only marvel at what a squash it must have been: a big Broadway musical with a cast of 22 piled on to a stage where you'd be hard put to park a Mini. In such a pocket-size version of the Fandango Ballroom (the sleazy joint where the 'dance hostesses' ply their trade), acts of intimacy would pretty well have to take place.

The show still looks a trifle cramped, and under-nourished too, in its new roomier home at south London's BAC, where it coasts by amiably enough, borne along more on the audience goodwill it generates than on anything arresting in the talent department. Even when electrically performed, though, this Coleman / Field musical suffers from glaring unevenness. Terrific songs ('Big Spender', 'Rhythm of Life', 'If My Friends Could See Me Now' etc) punctuate a book (by Mr Synthetic himself, Neil Simon) which, for all its zappy one- liners, is shot through with Broadway bad faith. A prostitute who has worked the club for eight years and remained an adorably cooky innocent? Charity must be taking the same magic preservative that keeps Shakespeare's young royals impregnably noble even after 16 years of loving among the peasantry.

The play is patchy in quality and this production compounds the unevenness. As Charity, Charlotte Bicknell has a gangly charm and can mix goofiness and pathos, but her voice is just too weak to sell a song starrily enough, so that when she strains 'I'm a brass band, I'm a harpsichord, I'm a clarinet', it's all too embarrassingly evident she's nothing of the sort. The choreography is pretty lacklustre, too, and not only in the ballroom where the jaded sexuality is justifiable in dramatic terms: 'Who's dancing?' asks hostess Nickie (Mari Wilson). 'We defend ourselves to music.'

On the other hand, the comedy values of the piece are all in place, with David Lemkin timing his sudden anxiety attacks hilariously as Charity's buttoned-up and panic-stricken beau. Thanks to his split-second personality switches, the stuck-in-a- lift scene is a real highlight. Playing the ballroom's hardbitten proprietress, Patricia Villa also gives 'I Love to Cry at Weddings' exactly the right comic edge by having the air of a woman who could sit through a lynching perfectly dry-eyed. On Niall Rea's louche two-tier set, to a rescoring that's mainly piano and drums, the scantily-clad, faded hostesses give the appealing impression, in 'Big Spender' and other numbers, of being goodtime girls who are resigned to having a lousy time, at best. As for the show, can it give you a (boom, boom) good time? Well, it can give you a (boom, boom) fairly good time.

Runs to 20 March at the BAC, 176 Lavender Hill, London SW11. Booking: 071-223 2223

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