Southwark Playhouse, London – until 29 April 2017
In The Life, drug-dealing Guys and rent-by-the-hour Dolls walk a side of 42nd Street far shadier than the tapdancing one at Drury Lane. The daily grit and the nightly grind are underpinned with a spectacularly revitalized score from Cy Coleman fusing jazz and blues with his musical theatre roots, and some spunky new dialogue from still-got-it-baby veteran Michael Blakemore who directed the Broadway version a mere 38 years ago. Aged fifty.
Three hours on Southwark Playhouse’s tinny folding chairs is a bit of an endurance and there’s a whole chunk you could lose from the proceedings without damaging Blakemore’s resourceful and energetic production – but there’s some heart-stopping singing especially from T’Shan Williams as Queen, the ‘decent’ hooker ripped off by her drug-taking pimp.
There’s a nostalgic feel the characters belong in 80s cop show Hill Street Blues – especially splay-collared hustler John Addison and full-on badass Cornell S. John who are dead ringers for detectives LaRue and Washington.
Joanna Woodward is lovely as fresh-off-the-bus Mary who turns out not to be as innocent as the low lifes expect. You can’t really go wrong with a ‘tarts with a heart’ plot (well, unless you’re Burt Reynolds in The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas) and even the drug-dealing gangstas have a brooding angry credibility. In all these situations, though, you wonder why the women who outnumber their pimps never got more organised.
The book is pretty weak – no guy gets the girl but two girls get the hell out – so it’s equally enjoyable as a luscious concert with some terrific voices. The music often has a different nostalgia, deriving more from a thirties and forties film or theatrical tradition than directly related to the period in which the show is set. Unusually for the musically versatile Coleman, who wrote three extractable standards ‘Hey, Big Spender’, ‘Rhythm of Life’ and ‘There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This’ just from his other not-quite-working-girl show Sweet Charity – there isn’t a big takeaway song from The Life.
All the cast have dynamic vocals but sporting a Joan Armatrading wig as an ageing hooker who works out she’s had 50% more men than the Grand Old Duke of York, Britain’s best blues diva Sharon D Clarke is downright unmissable.
It’s always interesting to predict a show’s future: there’s clearly substantial investment in The Life which could carry it way beyond Southwark – Clarke is certainly a bankable name as she proved in Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom but although Addison is fine in the role, such is the urgent demand for ‘him off the telly’ names I suspect you’d need John Partridge to ditch his awful tour of La Cage aux Folles and take over as Jojo to put enough bums on West End seats.
Or there’s always that draughty shed at King’s Cross.