Review: The Life, Southwark Playhouse

“I’ve done everything that a body can do.
But how goddamn much can a body go through?”

There’s a moment early on in The Life where Sharon D Clarke’s been-around-the-block-and-then-some Sonja has a moment akin to Jenna Russell’s ‘The Revolutionary Costume for Today’ in Grey Gardens where she utterly and completely steals the show with an outstanding musical number, the likes of which will scarcely be bettered all year. Here it is ‘The Oldest Profession’, a world-weary but witty run through life working on the streets which is just bloody fantastic. But lest you worry that this is a musical to glamourise prostitution, all that good feeling is instantly shattered by a scene of brutal cruelty from her pimp which leaves you in no doubt as to how (melodramatically) serious The Life is.

Set on the seedier side of 42nd Street in 1980s New York, David Newman, Ira Gasman and Cy Coleman’s book remembers Times Square before it became tourist-friendly and follows a group of people just trying to get by in this callous world. Queen is turning tricks and saving money to move on out of this world but when her lover Fleetwood, a troubled Vietnam vet with a habit, blows half her stash on his stash, it’s clear that something drastic needs to happen. Angered by new arrival from the sticks Mary, aided by longtime friend and co-worker Sonja, and abetted by the malicious Memphis, Queen is spurred onto a course of ambitious but tragic action.

It’s a sordid and occasionally desperate world but one that director Michael Blakemore, who also helmed the 1997 Broadway production, shows us also has hope and heart. Tom Jackson Greaves’ choreography really plays up the sense of camaraderie between the working girls, led superlatively by Sharon D Clarke’s mother hen-of sorts in Sonja, with vivid bursts of character – especially from Jalisa Andrews and Lucinda Shaw – showing the unconventional family dynamic they cling to. And on the fringe of the group with her eyes firmly fixed on the exit, T’Shan Williams’ determined Queen is a maelstrom of intense emotion, increasingly trapped by her situation but never entirely beaten.

As the men in their lives, David Albury’s out-of-his-depth would-be pimp Fleetwood is perfectly pitched up against Cornell S John’s malevolent old-hand Memphis and as the wheeler-dealing Jojo who acts as a narrator of sorts, John Addison has a nice moral equivalency about him. Coleman’s score, with lyrics by Gasman, is boldly tuneful and sounds sprightly under Tamara Saringer’s musical direction. Justin Nardella’s set design attempts a lot in the limited space of the auditorium and largely pulls it off, though Nina Dunn’s video projections are an unnecessary addition, especially when Nardella has provided such eye-catching (and definitely PG-rated) costumes.

At this final preview, the company looked to be in extremely fine form and a rapturous reception from the audience was certainly well deserved. The second act does stretch a little too languorously though, incorporating a couple of musical numbers that add little to the main thrust of the narrative for little discernible benefit, but it’s a small cavil in an otherwise enjoyable evening.   

Running time: 2 hours 50 minutes (with interval)
Photo: Tristram Kenton
Booking until 29th April

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