Sweet Charity Victoria Palace, London
Sweet Charity

Victoria Palace, London

When a new girl arrives to work as a "hostess" at the musical snake- pit which is the Fan-dango Ballroom, she's given strictly basic advice. "When they touch you, make like you're excited." Tawdry, and more than slightly bored, this preening gaggle of women line themselves up for the lowlife losers at this self-confessed crummy joint and belt out "Hey, Big Spender". It's the most famous song in one of the most justly famous musicals, and when they sing "I could show you a good time" you really want to believe them.

Bruised innocent Charity Valentine (Bonnie Langford), whose middle name is Hope, stands out from all this like a beacon. Her heart is like a hotel as she hurls herself at a string of unsuitable men. She and Nicky (tough Johanne Murdock) and Helene (sardonic Jane Fowler) dream of happiness blasting out the high spirited tarantella "There's Gotta Be Something Better Than This". When Charity accidentally finds herself stuck in a lift with nervous Oscar, her dreams suddenly threaten to come to life.

Yet this scene illustrates everything that's wrong with Carol Metcalfe's toothless, truthless production. Who knows what the (low) budget was, but it should have run to something more solid than the wobbly, V-shaped, carpeted corner which passes for an elevator. More sharply defined lighting would have helped, but that problem pales in the light of the shoddy undetailed direction. Even claustrophobics in the audience should want to be in there with them, rooting for Charity as romance blossoms between them. Metcalfe, however, finds nothing in this pivotal scene but awkward comedy and despite Cornell John's valiant effort as Oscar, the potential drama slumps below body temperature.

Bob Fosse's original choreography has been recreated by Chet Walker and the hard working company are expertly drilled in the knock-kneed stances, the isolated shoulder-shrugs, the insolent, slap-in-the-face stares. It works best in "The Rich Man's Frug", a neurotic shimmy of a nightclub number, with the men sneeringly blowing smoke over the perilously laid- back bodies of the women who slope about in evening gloves to Cy Coleman's deliciously corny sixties' rhythms.

Fatally, Metcalfe and Walker seem unable to communicate the secret of Fosse's style, the ability to fill movement with dramatic purpose. Everything's right but at the same time all wrong. Where's the sex, the sleaze, the soul? But what finally stymies everything is the casting. Fosse didn't create this entire show around Gwen Verdon simply because she was his wife. He did it because he knew she could dance everyone else off the stage and play comedy, and make you believe everything the character felt. Verdon may have worked in musical comedy but the woman could seriously act. That's what this show takes. It stands and falls on Charity who is barely ever off-stage.

If determination and technique were all, Bonnie Langford would be in clover. Her voice is strong and her dance technique is faultless. Alas, it is also flavourless. Langford doesn't act, she performs. She's so determinedly winning and kooky that all charm disappears. She notates and rotates emotions, but vulnerability is beyond her. Without it, she - and we - are lost.

Dorothy Fields' exemplary, character-specific lyrics and Coleman's bonanza of a score still sound sensational, thanks to the tremendous band, and everything suddenly gels in the final two production numbers. In the exuberant "I'm a Brass Band" Charity's electrified with happiness because somebody loves her, and, at last, Langford and the role coincide. In the film, the sudden appearance of zillions of dancers just feels like time for a big production number. Here, it's as if she conjures up the high-stepping dancers through sheer force of will. Quite literally, she's beside herself with joy. But it's way too late.