Southwark Playhouse, London – until 29 April 2017
Cy Coleman has a fine track record of taking an acerbic view of iconic American cities. With City Of Angels his score parodied a film noir view of Los Angeles – and here, with The Life, he peels back the fairytale of New York to reveal the truer uglier side of 42nd Street and Broadway that persisted throughout much of the last century.
It is hard to believe that this same city location fuelled the narrative to Frank Loesser’s Guys And Dolls. Coleman and Ira Gasman pitch their show uncompromisingly on the streets around Times Square in the 1980s, when crime and sleaze were endemic to the area. But where Loesser’s Joey Biltmore or Big Jule may well have been looked on as lovable rogues, The Life‘s villains are terrifyingly monstrous.
And yet – amongst the filth and destitution of its city setting, The Life‘s story, fuelled by Coleman’s richly flavoured score, moves us all in depicting the fragile shoots of hope and humanity struggling to survive.
T’Shan Williams leads the show as young hooker Queen – desperate to make enough money to break away from vice and build a new life with her boyfriend Fleetwood (David Albury). We know their love is doomed from the outset – he’s a drug-dependant Vietnam vet battling PTSD for whom Queen will always take second place to his addiction. It is Williams’ portrayal of Queen’s self-belief that drives the show.
Her relative youth belying an ability to play a desperately damaged, vulnerable woman who’s struggling to make her life work. Vocally Williams is a dream too, holding sensational notes with a range that is at times spine-tingling.
Williams is more than matched by the powerhouse that is Sharon D Clarke. Playing Sonja, a compassionate ageing woman who’s only known life as a whore, Clarke is majestic and compelling. Her duetting with Williams offers some of the finest musical theatre performance to be found, the spirituality of You Can’t Get To Heaven being an electrifying glimpse into the bond of humanity that spanning the decades between them, unites the two women. Living in a world of profound ugliness, they display a dazzling inner beauty.
There’s impressive womanly work on stage not just from Clarke and Williams but from a striking ensemble of street-hookers, who frequently suggested (to this reviewer at least) that if one were to take back the mink and the pearls from Loesser’s Hot Box Girls, then what Coleman and Gasman have created is so much closer to a far harsher reality.
There’s a cracking turn too from Joanna Woodward as the (apparently) naive Mary, straight off the bus from Duluth and quickly hustled. Woodward’s Easy Money routine offering a polished glimpse into the truth of the tawdry sleaze of the strip scrub – in a routine that again defines so much more dismal honesty than the glossed over burlesque of Louise’s strip routines in the closing act of Styne and Sondheim’s Gypsy.
The Life shines in its diversity. Not just in a cast that is unequivocally multi-racial, but rather one which is refreshingly spread across a range of ages and body sizes that don’t conform to the conventionally clichéd tropes of beauty.
Where the show is unashamedly partisan however is in its treatment of men. By the final curtain, we’ve learned that every man on stage is ultimately a deceitful, exploitative scumbag.
Notwithstanding their characters’ moral vacuity, the guys on stage are, to a man, outstanding actors. John Addison sets the stage as Jojo a middle ranking hustler, whose Use What You’ve Got defines his oleaginous duplicity. There’s classy work too from Jo Servi’s bartender Lacy, who in a small but critical moment defines the malicious misogyny permeating the streets. It is however Cornell S. John as Memphis, the city’s prime pimp who both stuns and horrifies. John has a presence rarely encountered in Off West End theatre. With magnificent understatement he oozes an abusive, fearful force, which when played alongside his striking vocal resonance in both Don’t Take Much and My Way Or The Highway, proves as chilling as it is compelling.
It’s taken twenty odd years for Michael Blakemore, who directed the show’s Tony-winning Broadway premier to bring it to London and his maturity and wisdom is evident in this carefully nuanced production’s impact. Slick movement matched with a simple design motif of sliding parking-garage doors that slide to reveal the scenic trucks, and all staged underneath visionary projections of New York (the projection of the Hudson River’s ripples is inspired), combine to create an ingenious treat.
Above the stage, Tamara Saringer conducts the first 11 piece band to play Southwark coaxing an exquisite treatment of Coleman’s soaring score. Yet again, Joe Atkin-Reeve’s work on the reeds is sensational – as Coleman’s compositions range from ballsy brassy belting numbers to ethereal Gospel and heartbreaking ballad.
The show marks Broadway (and West End) producer Catherine Schreiber’s welcome arrival into leading a team of producers on London’s fringe, as she displays a commitment to production values, throughout the show, that rank alongside the sector’s best.
Scorchingly unmissable, The Life is one of the finest shows in town.
Runs until 29th AprilPicture credit: Conrad Blakemore