Friday, 31 March 2017

Theatre review: The Life

I would consider Sharon D. Clarke to be a fairly big name, certainly in London theatre circles, so it's a bit of a coup for Southwark Playhouse that she's starring in their latest musical. But then Clarke seems like the kind of actor who'll choose roles based on how much she likes them rather than how starry they are, whether it's panto or an ageing hooker in an ensemble piece like The Life. If Guys and Dolls is the classic musical about Broadway's past as one of New York's seediest streets, then Cy Coleman (music) Ira Gasman and David Newman's (book and lyrics) musical catches up with it a little while before it gets cleaned up and tourist-friendly, and finds it more dangerous than ever. It's 1978* and almost every character we meet is either a prostitute or a pimp; Vietnam vet Fleetwood (David Albury) currently only pimps out his own girlfriend Queen (T'Shan Williams) as they save up to get away from New York and make a new start.

They don't realise they're being played by dangerous local kingpin Memphis (Cornell S. John,) who wants to add Queen to his own stable of hookers.

So Fleetwood's best friend Jojo (John Addison) is actually working for Memphis to get him hooked on increasingly hard drugs, which is where all the money they're meant to be saving is going. Fleetwood tries to build his business by recruiting seemingly naïve country girl Mary (Joanna Woodward,) but she's soon got him wrapped around her finger instead and Queen starts to think she'd rather jack than Fleetwood, mack. Michael Blakemore directed the original Broadway production of The Life twenty years ago and returns to take on the belated London premiere.

He's assembled a very strong cast who belt out a series of very strong tunes - in fact so many of them feel like classics on a first listen that it was surprising I hadn't heard any of them before. The great music is the show's biggest draw but also its only major flaw: They're very much slick Broadway numbers, which keep the show running at a great pace and feeling shorter than its three hours, but this also means they're somewhat at odds with the dark, nasty story being told, that opens with Jojo narrating from a point some years later and listing the grisly ends most of the characters will come to. It's a bit pimps-and-whores-and-AIDS-and-drugs-and-JAZZ HANDS!

So it's somewhat at odds with itself but certainly provides entertainment, and you can't fault that cast: Williams strikes the right mix of nerve and vulnerability as Queen, and you've got to hand it to her for vocally holding her own next to the powerhouse that is Clarke, who as the exhausted survivor Sonja dominates proceedings and adds some of the touches of humour that stop the story from becoming too bleak. Woodward is very effective at subtly revealing Mary's hapless rube front to be an act, and her gradually turning out to be one of the most manipulative characters of them all. Albury suffers a bit from a character that's not that well-defined - I was never sure quite how sympathetic to him we were meant to be - and if he's not going to take his shirt off all evening it's a bit rude of designer Justin Nardella to put him in a shirt that's see-through, but not quite see-through enough.

Another highlight is Tom Jackson Greaves' choreography, intense and athletic in the intimate space (and Matthew Caputo in the ensemble is adorable, although the number of times his high-kicks came within millimetres of someone in the front row's face started to get me nervous.) Overall this is a highly enjoyable evening, but I could have just done with a hint more irony at the contrast between the story and the way it's being told.

The Life by Cy Coleman, Ira Gasman, David Newman and Michael Blakemore is booking until the 29th of April at Southwark Playhouse's Large Theatre.

Running time: 2 hours 55 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Conrad Blakemore.

*I've seen a lot of references to this being set in the early eighties, but one of the only things to specifically pinpoint the date is a prop newspaper reporting the death of Harvey Milk; I know we're pre-internet here but it didn't take that long for news to travel from coast to coast.

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