On 22nd April, I visited one of my favourite venues, the Southwark Playhouse, to see the first UK production of Cy Coleman, Ira Gasman and David Newman’s musical The Life. The Life first hit the Broadway stage 20 years ago in 1997 with direction from Michael Blakemore, starring Pamela Isaacs, Lillias White and Chuck Cooper, and proved to be a huge hit, offering a stark look at prostitution in New York City in the time before Disneyfication (the clean up of the city and the commercialisation it soon saw afterwards). The production ran for over a year and garnered 12 Tony Award nominations, with wins for White’s and Cooper’s stellar performances as Sonja and Memphis respectively. I didn’t know a huge deal about the show going in but the casting of Sharon D. Clarke and Cornell S. John intrigued me enough to book a ticket.
The show itself was a mixed bag for me, I thoroughly enjoyed it (even if the first act felt like it was about 20 minutes too long, especially sat on the not-so-comfortable seats of the Southwark Playhouse) but there was something off to me. At times, it was dark and chilling, where you genuinely felt terrified for the women (in particular, Memphis’ act 1 solo, Don’t Take Much, in which he sang about being able to turn any woman into a prostitute for his use) but at others, it was jaunty and jolly as though there was absolutely nothing wrong with the world they lived in. This may have been a deliberate choice by Coleman, Gasman and Newman to show how the city carried on despite the plights of many of it’s residents but regardless, there was something that felt off about it. This didn’t hurt my enjoyment in the slightest though, and at multiple moments, I was truly moved by what I was seeing.
The cast were brilliant and each and every one of them deserve great praise for the stellar work they did. T’Shan Williams led the company as Queen, the hopeful young woman looking for an escape with her boyfriend Fleetwood. T’Shan acted the role brilliantly, breathing such life into this complex character, and had a gorgeous voice to match. I see great things ahead for her. Another member of the cast with a great career ahead of them is David Albury who played Queen’s boyfriend, Fleetwood, the Vietnam War veteran struggling to get rid of his drug addiction that eases his PTSD-style flashbacks. David showed off his lovely voice and strong acting throughout the show and had such wonderful chemistry with T’Shan.
Playing the role of Sonja, the aging hooker who has seen better days, is Olivier Award winner Sharon D. Clarke who showed why she is such a sought after actress in the UK with her multi-faceted and heartbreaking portrayal of this woman who knew there was nothing left for her. Her rendition of The Oldest Profession got the largest audience response of the whole show, and her stellar acting during My Friend and the scene that followed moved me to tears. Cornell S. John was the perfect antagonist, showing such subtlety as Memphis. His chilling, calm speaking voice, deep baritone, and icy glare only added to his menace and visibly terrified a lot of the audience. Other stand outs include John Addison as Jojo, the scheming, manipulative hustler, and Joanna Woodward as Mary, the small town country girl who wasn’t as innocent and wide-eyed as she originally seemed.
The show was filled out by an extremely talented ensemble of people who each got their chance to shine in their individual featured roles. Jalisa Andrews, Aisha Jawando, Charlotte Reavey and Lucinda Shaw played the other prostitutes we meet during the show, each with a thrilling belt on them and great levels of sass, and were joined by Jo Servi as Lacy, the charming barman, Johnathan Tweedie as Theodore, the smarmy adult film director, and Matthew Caputo, Lawrence Carmichael, Omari Douglas (who made a cameo as a transgender prostitute in the act 2 number, ‘Someday’ is for Suckers) and Thomas-Lee Kidd, and an 11-piece band led by musical director Tamara Saringer which sounded brilliant and was the perfect backing to this cast of extremely strong singers.
This production was in fact directed by the original Broadway director, Michael Blakemore, and it definitely showed. It was slick and well thought out, Blakemore clearly knows what he is doing with the piece. Whilst I enjoyed the choreography by Tom Jackson-Greaves, I thought some bits were unnecessary and felt shoehorned in but it didn’t ruin the show at all. The production showed a new light to the Southwark Playhouse for me, with the usual static set replaced by automated pieces emerging from behind a sliding metal gate (which surrounded the entire space, adding a fully realised feel to the show), designed by Justin Nardella, and projections to show the multiple different locations the show took place in, designed by Nina Dunn, both of which I thought fit the piece and venue extremely well. Nardella also designed the costumes which were probably the best I’ve seen at the venue, perfectly suiting each individual character and the feel of the late 70s/early 80s. The lighting was designed by David Howe and I thought it was brilliantly atmospheric, representing the mood of each individual moment extremely well, and a special shout out has to go to Sebastian Frost who designed the sound in a venue that is notoriously hard to get sound balance right in.
All in all, this was a thoroughly enjoyable show despite a couple small misgivings, with excellent performances all around and if it were still running, I would definitely recommend it to any theatre fan who wanted to see something a little bit out of the ordinary.