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The Life is ‘a magnificent and sensational production’

T'Shan Williams (Queen) & David Albury (Fleetwood) - The Life at Southwark Playhouse - (c) Conrad Blakemore
T’Shan Williams (Queen) & David Albury (Fleetwood) – The Life at Southwark Playhouse – (c) Conrad Blakemore

Tuition fees in England are, for most university courses, £9,250 a year (at the time of writing). This has led to a small number of students becoming sex workers to supplement their income.

Dependent on your point of view on such matters, they are either very inventive or very stupid, or perhaps a mixture of the two. It is, I would have thought, more profitable per hour worked than pulling pints behind a bar, and, as the musical Les Miserables suggests, it’s a way to “make money in your sleep”. And while life on the other side of the Atlantic in The Life, portraying the underworld of New York City’s red light district, is a difficult path, the musical itself has plenty of groovy and upbeat tunes to enjoy. This show is a paradox – the darker the story, the more celebratory the music.

After such a lively start (this was one of those shows that ‘had me at hello’), I wondered if the level of momentum could be maintained. I was also concerned about whether I could keep up with it, as Jojo (John Addison) introduces character after character so briskly that the opening number felt like a blur. Both matters, I am thrilled to report, caused no problems in the end. From start to finish, both plot and music were enthralling and highly intriguing, and while there is an eventual joyous musical theatre finish, the twists and turns in the storyline (in more ways than one) continued to appear even in the final scene.

This production’s two most famous performers, Sharon D. Clarke as Sonja and Cornell S. John as Memphis, deliver in spades. Clarke brought the house down in ‘The Oldest Profession’, a mid-Act One number that felt like a late Act Two showstopper. The delivery was perfect, all-out without overkill, a powerhouse vocal without being in any way superfluous. John had flawless control over his voice and delivery too, authoritative as befits the character, enchanting when the occasion called for it, and coolly menacing elsewhere.

The only problem with this musical isn’t really a problem at all. The musical numbers are so delightful that they could simply be enjoyed for what they are. The ‘problem’ with that is this. The musical numbers more often than not drive the narrative forward, so some concentration is required because the plot continues to unfold as these wonderful tunes ring out. But I soon found myself getting used to the way in which this show presents itself, even if on one level it takes close to three hours just to tell its audience that there’s one hell of a difference between the American Dream and the American Reality.

L-R Aisha Jawando (Carmen), David Albury (Fleetwood), T'Shan Williams (Queen), Cornell S. John (Memphis), Sharon D. Clarke (Sonja), John Addison (JoJo) and Charlotte Reavey (April) - The Life - Photo by Simon Turtle
L-R Aisha Jawando (Carmen), David Albury (Fleetwood), T’Shan Williams (Queen), Cornell S. John (Memphis), Sharon D. Clarke (Sonja), John Addison (Jojo) and Charlotte Reavey (April) – The Life – Photo by Simon Turtle

The relatively limited space is used with considerable creativity. There is somehow room for a double bed to come on and off stage – I trust it is not too much of a spoiler for a bed to make an appearance at some point in a show with prostitutes in it. The 11-piece band, ably led by Tamara Saringer, sounds as though it is at least three times larger. I suspect the excellent acoustics of the Southwark Playhouse help – I had similar sentiments when a six-piece band played for a 2013 production of Titanic The Musical in this same venue.

The whole cast are well-drilled by veteran director Michael Blakemore, and the show is clearly influenced by more than one well-known musical theatre show. I shall leave it to others to identify what these are in order not to give too much away. There are subtle breaches of the fourth wall to look out for, too. The choreography (Tom Jackson Greaves) has flair and flamboyancy to it. The usual allowances to be made for a thin plotline in a musical are dispensed with regards to The Life – what a magnificent and sensational production this is.

5 Star Rating

Review by Chris Omaweng

You’re not in Kansas anymore…
A thrilling exposé of the darker side of 1980’s New York, The Life is a defiant and heartfelt musical lament for the old Times Square. A world of pimps and prostitutes, innocents and opportunists, it’s a gutsy and gritty joyride filled with both pathos and fun.

Queen and Fleetwood are just trying to get by. New York has hit a moral rock bottom, and opportunity is becoming a scarcity. Queen is now selling herself to anyone with cash in Times Square, while Fleetwood is spending that cash on his nightly fix. Such is a regular story for those in The Life – just ask Sonja, whose market value as a hooker is depleting. It seems that nothing ever improves for those in The Life, but when a mysteriously innocent farm girl named Mary shows up, and Memphis and Jojo, the biggest players in town, offer to help Queen out, will things start looking up?

Creative Team
Director – Michael Blakemore
Associate Director – Jenny Eastop
Choreographer – Tom Jackson Greaves
Musical Director – Tamara Saringer
Set and Costume Designer – Justin Nardella
Lighting Designer – David Howe
Video Designer – Nina Dunn
Casting Director – Anne Vosser
General Management – David Adkin Limited

Producers
Amy Anzel, Matt Chisling and Catherine Schreiber
Bruno Wang, Andrea Leoncini
Carlos Arana and Jim Kierstead

Cast
John Addison, David Albury, Jalisa Andrews, Matthew Caputo, Lawrence Carmichael, Sharon D. Clarke, Omari Douglas, Aisha Jawando, Cornell S. John, Thomas-Lee Kidd, Charlotte Reavey, Jo Servi, Lucinda Shaw, Johnathan Tweedie, T’Shan Williams, Joanna Woodward

Amy Anzel, Matt Chisling and Catherine Schreiber present the UK premiere of The Life
Music by Cy Coleman
Lyrics by Ira Gasman
Book by David Newman, Ira Gasman, and Cy Coleman with additional material by Michael Blakemore
Note: This production contains strong language, violence and partial nudity.

25 MARCH – 29 APRIL 2017
Running Time 170 mins including interval. Approx.
southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/

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