Sunday, 2 April 2017

'Someday' is for Suckers... The Life (2017), Southwark Playhouse

The old Times Square was still live and kicking when I first went to New York City in the mid-eighties, edgy and unsettling it made our Soho look tame. I remember seeing a timid-looking guy in a suit being hustled off down a west-side street "c'mon buddy you know it's what you want..." - what happened I'll never know. It was a fascinating, frightening place: anarchy in the USA... a world in which the only law is desire. A visit to this neighbourhood aroused conflicting response but if you had to live in it... well, that's something else.

Cy Coleman's musical is less well known than Sweet Charity and City of Angels (brilliantly revived at the Donmar Warehouse last year) but it packs a truer punch than either. His music and Ira Gasman's words pay tribute more to the actuality of this desperate place and even though time may have made The Life as much of a period piece as the noir Angels, there is no doubt that The Life continues to be lived and it's hard.

Use What You Got
Coleman and Gasman wrote the final version with David Newman and the production was further refined by director Michael Blakemore, who, as Newman said, "steered the show along a tightrope, careful not to fall into the seediness below, toward a common humanity to which audiences can relate."

Twenty years after its Broadway debut the show has been revived with Mr Blakemore once again directing and it is among the most thrilling and immersive theatre I've seen. The Southwark's space is so intelligently used and as the cast enter and exit via stairways through the audience left and right, you feel completely wrapped up in this world.

The fifteen strong cast are, literally, in your face throughout and their voices, all powerfully stage strong connect like a heavyweight right hook... above and below the belt!

Sharon D. Clarke in full flow
Sharon D. Clarke is the diva-in-chief as Sonja the old pro who has - almost - grown to old for her night job... her voice is so rich in texture she hardly needs the words to express her feelings. She has such stunning presence!

Cornell S. John is Memphis, the baddest of the pimps, who rules with an iron fist in a leather glove, so effortlessly cool and dominating the stage space with charismatic, soulful vocals. His performance is all the more powerful with the full weight of his character's darkness only hinted at before being ruthlessly deployed as Memphis comes looking for payment in full after a favour "sold", not lent.

T’Shan Williams is Queen, our heroine and a one who dreams of escape for her and lover Fleetwood (David Albury). Williams' vocals are sweet and strong with a sad tenderness skillfully expressing fragile hope under threat. She acts with an old soul beneath her youth and beauty: someone to watch out for.

Queen turns tricks for Fleetwood, a Vietnam veteran now wanna be pimp... She's saved her money and wants to escape but her man has wasted it on getting wasted. She's his only girl though and encouraged by hustler-come-MC Jojo (John Addison) he goes in search of another to add to his roster. They find Mary (Joanna Woodward) newly arrived at the bus terminal and aim to suck her into their world of co-dependent vice.

Charlotte Reavey and Cornell S. John,
Yet, whilst she has just literally got off the bus, Mary is not quite the naive country hick they expected and soon she's moving from waiting tables to wowing punters at an adult bar. The only way is up and Fleetwood aims to follow. Queen sees little option but to deal with the Devil, in this case Memphis, which allows her to show up her old man at the Hookers' Ball. But everything comes at a price and Memphis is adept at balancing his books.

The prelude sets a fatalistic tone as the dancers explode on stage in distressed and distracting street-walker chic - this is the uniform of sexual defiance as much as availability: there's is a hard way and there's no glamour just weary, defiant display.

The girls
The ensemble gyrate with whiplash grace -  Jalisa Andrews (Chi Chi) beaming, Lucinda Shaw (Tracy) knowing, Charlotte Reavey (April) throwing near-infinite legs and  Aisha Jawando (Carmen) moving almost faster than the eye can follow. They are followed by the boys, Omari Douglas as Slick and also leggy as one less-than-sweet transvestite... Thomas-Lee Kidd (Bobby), Lawrence Carmichael (Snickers and fight director), Matthew Caputo (Oddjob), Jo Servi as bar owner Lacy and Jonathan Tweedie as porn baron Theodore.

This Life moves at pace and is relatively light on dialogue with the songs expressing so much of the characters' stories, from the defiance of JoJo's Use What You Got to the proud fatalism of Sandra's The Oldest Profession and Memphis's sadly all-too-true My Way or the Highway

There are some fantastic voices on show with the audience applauding each song with increasing intensity. This felt like a gig and yet the engagement on the faces around was as much with the story as the singers and the songs. We were all living The Life form start to finish.

John Addison, Joanna Woodward and Johnathan Tweedie
The direction is as assuredly perfect as you'd expect from the OBE, AO and American Theatre Hall of Fame awarded Michael Blakemore and Tom Jackson Greaves' choreography uses every available inch leaving the audience in the front row stirred but not shaken.

Tamara Saringer directs a superb group of musicians or as we should call them a really tight band!

Not a drop of energy is left unspent in an endeavour infused with pure joy. See it you must as it's been away from stage for far too long and it deserves not only to move out of the shadows of Cy's classics but also into the West End.

This Life runs at the Southwark Playhouse until 29 April 2017 - don't miss it because 'Someday' is for Suckers! Tickets are available here but I think you'll need to be quick for this is surely the hottest show in London!

Ithankyou Theatre rating: ***** (of course)
T’Shan Williams

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