Michael Blakemore originally directed The Life on Broadway, when it played in the proscenium arch Ethel Barrymore Theatre, which seats over 1,000 patrons. It must therefore be quite an experience for Blakemore to reimagine and direct The Life in the 240-seater Southwark Playhouse where, amongst other differences, the audience close in on the action from three sides of the stage.
The Life presents the darker side of New York’s Times Square circa 1980. It’s a story fuelled with prostitutes, drug dealers, runaways and trouble makers. The 42nd street setting of the Times Square subway is projected on to the theatre wall, with neon lights screaming ‘girls girls girls’. Unfriendly metal fencing cages the audience into the auditorium, as it also does the gaggle of desperate prostitutes in Ira Gasman’s narrative. These are close quarters for audience and actors alike; as soon as the first number – ‘Check it Out’ – kicks in, both stage and aisles are packed with cast members, jazz hands splayed inches from seats.
David Howe’s lighting design makes excellent use of this tight space, often substituting for props. A prison cell is depicted by a square of white light piercing the otherwise darkened stage floor. Later, a spotlight points horizontally at the women, imitating the headlights of a car. Justin Nardella’s costumes might be made for the 1980s time-frame of The Life, but the flamboyant shirts, colourful flares and chunky heels reveal a heavy hangover from the 70s.
Stunning harmonies, clever lyrics and jazz infused beats combine in Cy Coleman and Gasman’s score. Many of the songs are musically intricate, with fast-paced lyrics and multiple key changes. The cast rise to this, articulating and harmonising perfectly. Despite this, the songs gradually start to sound a bit too similar, and certain numbers feel a little lack lustre. By the time ‘My Body’ is sung towards the end of the first act, the theme already feels a bit repetitive.
Cornell S. John is excellent as the vile Memphis, a cool and steely stage fighter with a deep and soulful voice – yet there’s something missing from both sides in his performance against T’Shan Williams as Queen in ‘My Way or the Highway’, and the cliched lyrics make this number feel uninspired.
Witnessing Sonia (Sharon D. Clarke) and Queen singing ‘My Friend’ has the opposite effect, as the pair expose a loyal and caring friendship. West End veteran Clarke is superb as the tough but maternal Sonia. There’s a playful humour present in her performance of ‘The Oldest Profession’, her rich, powerful voice conveying old-world tones of jazz. Jo Servi has a similar effect as Lacy the barman, livening up the performance and generating plenty of laughter.
Joanna Woodward gives an impeccable performance as Mary, full of gusto with flawless singing and dancing. There’s something very All About Eve in her transformation from Mary to Angel, and her hunger for it is frightening. However it’s Williams, as Queen, who holds our sympathy throughout, and in the final, edge-of-your-seat scenes, we’re rooting for her to escape the life she’s fallen into.
The Life is on at Southwark Playhouse until 29th April 2017. Click here for more details.