Southwark Playhouse, London – until 29 April 2017
Even if you’re not a musical aficionado, Michael Blakemore’s production and the way the young cast headed by Sharon D Clarke get hold of and deliver Cy Coleman’s music with Ira Gasman’s lyrics will just blow you away. Well, they did me, even if towards the end of the first half I was beginning to question just a little its `happy hooker’ portrayal. But come the second half, my goodness, the reality of `life on the streets’, struck home.
On every level, this is a musical and a revival to treasure. Twenty years ago, Blakemore first staged the Coleman/Gasman show on Broadway where its run he described last night as nervy, splitting audiences into those who loved it and those who didn’t.
Was it the subject matter, presenting the pimps, drug dealers and prostitutes (we’d call them `sex workers’ today) of New York’s Times Square thirty and more years ago? It surely couldn’t have been the score for Coleman (of Sweet Charity and City of Angels fame) produces one memorable moment after another.
Indeed Coleman and Gasman’s abiding spirit in the first half is the upbeat spin they introduce despite the darkness of material. `It’s my body and ain’t nobody’s business but my own’, thunder the chorus line who – and this is a compliment to them – really do look like the real thing as they bump and grind to Coleman’s thumping rhythms, now bluesy, now jazzy and in a glorious duo sung by Sharon D Clarke and T’Shan Williams, hit the ceiling with the spiritual `You Can’t Get To Heaven’.
When you see artists enjoying themselves this much, it’s infectious. Sharon D Clarke lights up this small south London fringe theatre as she does as effortlessly the larger expanses of the National as Sonja, an ageing hooker, bemoaning the passing years and semi-hilariously working out the number of lays she’s had running into tens of thousands.
But it is T’Shan Williams as Queen, on the point of breaking free with dreams of another life with tortured Viet veteran, Fleetwood (David Albury) who is the revelation. A blissfully gifted singer as well as an actor of great pathos, she is the lynch-pin for the reality that lies behind the girls’ smart-talking ebullience – a world controlled by men.
`The demand never goes away’, sings John Addison’s no-good Mr Fixer, JoJo. And there’s always `fresh meat’ – young innocent girls – arriving on the doorstep, to groom and exploit. As Cornell S John’s frighteningly threatening master-pimp, Memphis (a touch of Moonlight’s Mahershala Ali about him), cynically croons, `it don’t take much to turn a girl into a woman.’
Does The Life over-glamourise as Guys & Dolls once did with its `low-lifers’? There’s more than an echo of Damon Runyon lurking but you can also hear Sondheim’s influence in its sung-through narrative and West Side Story/Sweeney Todd mixture of the lyrical with the macabre.
Hats off to set Justin Nardella for the New York backdrops, to Tom Jackson Greaves for explosive choreography (watch out for the Hookers’ Ball number) and most of all Michael Blakemore for whom this was clearly a labour of love, determined to bring The Life to London. He’s assembled a stunning crew. And they don’t let him down.
An absolute cracker. I loved it.