Music: Cy Coleman
Lyrics: Ira Gasman
Book: David Newman, Ira Gasman and Cy Coleman (revised by Michael Blakemore)
Director: Michael Blakemore
Reviewer: Karl O’Doherty
During the past week someone on Twitter wondered in awe at just how much the writer Douglas Adams managed to fit into the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. At around 100 pages it’s a dense, intelligent, wildly fully, heartbreaking book containing more than most authors would manage in three times as many pages.
At just a shade under three hours (with interval) we see that Ira Glasman clearly has the same talent – producing The Life, a complex, kinetic, resonant musical that packs more information and inspiration into it than many three-part series.
Inspired after witnessing a street arrest on 42nd Street in New York in the early ’80s (beside Times Square when it was a point of congress for hookers, pimps, addicts and bums) the musical pulls very few punches in describing a turbulent few days for a few of the areas hustlers. Multiple storylines swirl through – an abusive relationship, drug addiction, a new addition to the jealous prostitution scene. There’s only a little mention of disease and drugs that were rampant in that era, but at least they’re acknowledged.
Close up in the Southwark Playhouse we’re looking right into the manipulation and violence involved in pimping and prostitution. We’re looking at men commoditise flesh and scheme about how to squeeze cash from someone else’s body, someone else’s misfortune, or even someone else’s death. More importantly, though, we’re looking at women. Women who have lost ownership of themselves to a smooth talking pimp, women who have made the choice to go into sex work, women who bond with, cajole, sneer, and look out for each other.
There’s some incredibly powerful stuff happening in this piece. It would have been a far simpler task to paint a bunch of prostitutes as a group, but the cast, director and writers have managed to carve seven unique, memorable and intriguing female characters out of that seedy and wretched world and present them sympathetically. It’s a sex-positive story of friendship and loss with some outstanding performances, classic and ultra-modern at the same time.
Meeting the challenge laid down by the complexity of the storyline, not to mention the physical demands of the song and dance, it’s a privilege to watch this cast together. Massive performances from Sharon D. Clarke and T’Shan Williams as Sonja and Queen set the emotional tone for the piece, with layers added by the spivvy, morally dead “fixer” Jojo (John Addison), the unnerving and violent pimp Memphis (Cornell S. John) and the pathetic addict cum pimp-in-waiting Fleetwood (David Albury) as well as the girls themselves banging out number after number with ferocity.
Musically bold with a live ensemble filling the space with heavy brass lines and ’80s bass led by Tamara Saringer, there’s some argument to be made that this feels a bit dated. But look, this is a story about a world that thrived 30 years ago, revel in it. Its text and fibre question inequality at every turn from micro to macro level. It presents a diverse range of incredibly powerful women and makes no judgement, portraying variety in appearance and shape in a very body-positive way. It’s something we deserve a lot more of on London stages.
A frankly outrageous show – maybe not one for kids but one for anyone looking to actually have a real emotion.
Runs until 29 April 2017 | Image: Contributed