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|
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|
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,|
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.
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|
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)