Ira Gasman is supposed first to have come up with the idea for The Life after walking down 42nd Street at some point in the early 1980’s and seeing a police car pull up beside him, and two people get arrested there and then on the pavement in front of him, whilst simultaneously another couple was arguing across the street.
The ‘life’ of the title, which has just enjoyed its British Premiere at Southwark Playhouse, is prostitution. But not the sing-along tart-with-a-heart prostitution of Oliver!, nor the sophisticated Gallic putting-out of Irma La Douce. No, this is the full-on cocaine-fuelled, gun-wielding, AIDS-era exploitation of women – and men – in New York’s Times Square in the 1980’s. A time when the city was on its uppers and vice had taken over Broadway.
And does the show deliver?
Well, based on the casting and performances alone the answer would be a resounding yes, yes, yes. However, musicals are more than the sum of their casts, and there are a couple of annoying bits of grit in this particular oyster, more of which later.
However, the cast is the reason for seeing this show, and Coleman’s strong and often funk-infused melodies and Gasman’s brilliantly sparkling lyrics give plenty for both seasoned and new performers to get their teeth into.
T’Shan Williams as Queen – the notional leading lady – has some great numbers, notably ‘He’s no good’ which she delivers with real feeling, however, it’s impossible to ignore the fact that the star of the show is undoubtedly Sharon D Clarke whose deadpan delivery and comic timing – not to mention the most powerful female voice in London theatre – is thrilling to behold.
Her Act One number when she comes into a bar to have a rest from the daily bump and grind, only to bemoan the fact that ‘I’m getting too old for the oldest profession, I’m getting too tired and too slow. I’m getting too old for the half hour session. I’m getting too old for a pro…’ appears on paper to be one of the most depressing songs in the show, but with Coleman’s musical, and Clarke’s perfectly timed delivery it becomes a tour de force eliciting cheers, and no-doubt adding to the standing ovation she received during the company bow.
Among the other great numbers is act Two’s ‘Mr Greed’, led by John Addison as Jojo, who also acts as the narrator topping and tailing the show, putting the working girls’ lives in the context of his, the message basically being that they did all the work, and he took all the money…
As well as the cast, and the eleven piece band, sounding great under the musical direction of Tamara Saringer, and everything moving along energetically with Tom Jackson Greaves’ period-detail-containing choreography, Director Blakemore gets a nuance from his actors not often seen.
However…and here’s my caveat…what happened to the book?
Instead of a clear through-line telling a relatable story we could engage with and characters we could show empathy for – who, it must be said, are pretty thin on the ground in this show – the book sprawls and digresses to places which really do nothing at all to further our understanding of the protagonists or the world which they inhabit.
And as a final disappointment, the show doesn’t know when to end. I counted at least four endings in the closing minutes of the show, any of which could have left me leaving the theatre feeling a sense of conclusion. In the end, the end got a bit tedious.
This show was never going to be Coleman’s ‘hit’ because of the subject matter, but with a re-shaped book it might just have been a more emotionally satisfying, rather than simply enjoyable, evening in the theatre.