Love, life and lots of comic mishaps in a spirit-soaring musical

Melanie Boyland as Betsy, Kitty Roberts as Frenchy and Katie Tonkinson
Melanie Boyland as Betsy, Kitty Roberts as Frenchy and Katie Tonkinson

The University of Chichester’s pioneering musical theatre degree course marks its five-year anniversary with a production of Sweet Charity.

The course was the first in the country to take a full-scale touring production into major regional theatres.

Hannah Ford as Charity

Hannah Ford as Charity

Five years on, it has toured shows into 15 venues from Billingshurst Village Hall to The Hawth main house and as far afield as Theatre Royal Margate, performing 35 shows to more than 4,000 people.

Now they celebrate their anniversary with the Tony Award-winning, spirit-soaring musical Sweet Charity, based on the book by Neil Simon of the Federico Fellini film, Nights of Cabiria. The tour will include Horsham’s Capitol on Sunday, March 22.

The tale follows the tender, poignant and funny misadventures of love encountered by the gullible and guileless Charity Hope Valentine, a woman who always gives her heart, her dreams and her money to the wrong man.

Cy Coleman’s score features hits including ‘Hey, Big Spender’, ‘If My Friends Could See Me Now’ and ‘The Rhythm of Life’. Originally directed and choreographed by Bob Fosse, Sweet Charity premiered on Broadway at the Palace Theatre in 1966, where it ran for over 600 performances.

Perry Meadowcroft as Oscar

Perry Meadowcroft as Oscar

The university’s production features a live band of leading West End professionals, and for the first time they will be in the hands of musical director Julian Kelly whose credits include Chichester Festival Theatre’s production of 42nd Street and Singin’ in the Rain and River Dance on New York’s Broadway.

All five touring productions have been directed by Karen Howard and choreographed by Damien Delaney.

Karen said: “Our first touring production Honk! was rehearsed in a derelict sports hall, toured in a small van and our venues included a farmyard barn in Kent. But wherever we went, venue managers and promoters were astonished by the high quality of our productions and we started selling out the smaller spaces.

“We have now progressed to some of the loveliest theatres in the country, have loyal audiences all over the south-east who look forward to our annual tour and, importantly, our students are being seen by some of the leading agents in the country and are going straight from graduation into the West End, Disney cruises and films.”

Set and costume designer Ryan Laight is now on his third touring production.

“My set designs for touring have to work in a variety of theatre settings and are all borne out of the unique collaborations that occur on each production. These are big casts of 15 or more, and the costume demands are considerable, but Chichester has an amazing creative team who are artistically bold and want me to experiment so we all end up raising our game.”

The lead roles are double-cast, just in case… and emergencies do happen as Katie Tonkinson, one of the Charity Hope Valentines, explains:

“I was sharing the lead in Thoroughly Modern Millie with a great friend who became suddenly ill. I had to cover all the shows. It was shattering for her after putting in all that work, but we are there for our audiences and we are expected to put on an exceptional show every night so our producers cover all the bases.

“Charity is an incredible role. It’s comic and gritty. She’s simultaneously naïve and tough, a real contradiction!’

Katie is sharing the role with Hannah Ford in her first lead role at the university: “I auditioned for Charity because I felt that I understood her character’s combination of vulnerability and determination. It seems to have worked.

“This is an amazing opportunity, and each year the standard keeps on getting higher. We’re now getting 1,000 applications for 50 places. By the time you get to your third year you are up against some seriously strong actors! So I guess I’m quite proud to have got this role. To see just how brilliant this is, book your tickets now and have a great night out!”

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