The Life, Southwark Playhouse, London ★★★★

Reviewed for Musical Theatre Review:

There are many musicals that deal with society’s underclass, and its criminal element. The Life is one such piece: with music by Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity, City of Angels) and lyrics by Ira Gasman (who co-wrote the original book with David Newman), this 20-year-old Broadway musical deals with prostitutes and their pimps in 1980s New York, before Times Square was cleaned up and 42nd Street become a tourist hellhole rather than an adult entertainment one.

This 20th anniversary production at Southwark Playhouse is also the show’s UK premiere, overseen by its original New York director, Michael Blakemore, who also contributes an amended book.

It is remarkable how many of the show’s melodies ignite a spark of recognition. In part this is due to Coleman’s score (re-created here with the original 11-piece orchestrations under the gaze of musical director Tamara Saringer) which has echoes of his other, better known works. While Justin Nardella’s costumes reek with 1970s fashions, the score often feels like it was birthed in the decades previous.

And there are plenty of great numbers throughout – so many that the show’s running time of more than three hours still seems packed with musical incident.

The book’s principal story revolves around T’Shan Williams’ Queen, a woman who moved to New York with her military veteran boyfriend Fleetwood (David Albury) and who is turning tricks to earn enough for the pair of them to one day leave the roach-infested hotel they’re currently stuck in.

Stuck in the life because Fleetwood keeps dipping into their savings to fund his drug habit, Queen is friends with Sharon D Clarke’s Sonja, an older sex worker who, while content with her lot, sees other options in Queen’s future.

And it is Clarke who is both the emotional and singing heart of The Life. Able to wring the darkest of humour out of the driest line, Sonja enlivens every scene she is in. Clarke’s rendition of ‘The Oldest Profession’, where Sonja laments she’s getting too old for the life, is a tour de force. Humorous without detracting from the seriousness of her situation, with a refusal to regard her life as a tragedy, to witness this number is to be in the presence of one of musical theatre’s greatest performances.

It would be easy for a production to rest on its laurels with such a powerhouse performance as Clarke’s, but vocally the rest of the ensemble is just as strong.

John Addison’s performance of ‘Use What You Got’, introducing his character of ‘fixer’ Jojo is the perfect introduction to the musical’s world.

Williams, a relative newcomer, carries herself with an appropriately regal air as Queen. And as the piece’s villain, the ruthless pimp Memphis, Cornell S. John is an imperious figure, utterly convincing as a man who is in complete control of the New York underworld.

Complementing the score is some breathlessly energetic choreography by Tom Jackson Greaves, who weaves classic Broadway hoofing with some disco-inspired moves to elevate the sense of time and place.

And while the grey steel set initially looks as if it has little to offer, some inspired and subtle projection effects – particularly in the show’s closing sequences set beneath Brooklyn Bridge – add further depth.

Despite the amendments to the book, Act I of The Life still struggles to pace its story, meaning that the house lights come up for the interval at a time when other shows would be heading towards the Act II finale.

And no amount of book emendations can fix some of the problems with the character of Queen’s boyfriend-cum-pimp Fleetwood, whose background of what we now call PTSD resurfaces at a coincidentally fortuitous moment in the conclusion to Act II.

But having three hours or more in the company of a Cy Coleman score could never be time wasted. And with some classic performances from Clarke and her fellow cast members, this is one life that deserves to be seen by all.