A small stage, an amazing score and some unforgettable characters, are all present at Southwark Playhouse’s revival of the Broadway hit musical The Life. Twenty years since its Broadway debut, director Michael Blakemore brings The Life to the streets of London. T’Shan Williams plays Queenie, the 80s sex worker seeking escape with her boyfriend and pimp Fleetwood. The formidable king pimp Memphis wont let Queenie get away. Drugs, tricksters and pimps keep pulling them back in spite of their love. A production that takes you back to the grit and grime of 80s New York. Of course, that all comes amazingly packaged together with a score by Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman.
Each song is a fresh burst of energy amidst a riveting story. From the snappy Mr Greed song to the catchy My Body each cast member brings a distinct and powerful vocal performance to the stage. One of the highlights is Sharon D’ Clarke’s extraordinary vocal solo in the song The Oldest Profession. A song about an aging sex worker and the experiences she’s been through. It’s a great moment to sit back and enjoying the lyrical magic of Ira Gasman. John Addison does an amazing job playing the slimy pimp Jojo, who is also the narrator of the story, giving the production an interesting story like feeling, bringing 80s New York to the streets of London.
The size of the Southwark Playhouse isn’t something to forget. With their main house only holding 240 seats, this was definitely a downsize for the Broadway giant. However, the London theater world turned the tables, the smaller production felt more intimate, more story like and each character had a purpose. The musical sequences were more explosive simply by their sheer proximity. The smaller stage brings the audience in, giving them a stake in what was happening, as the prostitutes try to sell themselves. A touch of theatricality that I felt brought back some seriousness to the production. The light designer is someone usually looked over. This production wouldn’t have had half the impact if it wasn’t for the stunning light setting. David Howe brought each location to life simply with lights! The fluorescent shimmering in the dance sequences and the genius creation of space using lights, gave the production its hold in reality, even with the small stage.
The British cast talk like New Yorkers, walk like New Yorkers, and for three hours the audiences is truly immersed in the underbelly the 80s sex trafficking scene. It took twenty years, Michael Blakemore’s innovative mind and an amazing production team, but the Southwark Playhouse has truly brought The Life to London.