In stark contrast to the last musical in the Large at Southwark, The Life speaks to the difficulties of being a woman and the commodification of the female body for male pleasure. Despite being passed from pimp to pimp, Queen (T’Shan Williams) and her contemporaries are all headstrong women with ambition. They simply follow the mantra ‘Use what you got’. The impossible situation they find themselves in is testament to the fact that their bodies really are the only things they do have, and their power despite their desperation is admirable. In a world of narcotics, prostitution and the need to make some ‘easy money’, The Life tells the story of the women and the struggles they face at the hands of the men in their lives.
Cy Coleman’s score is electric, lending itself well to choreography with a modern twist by Tom Jackson Greaves. In particular, the male ensemble in ‘Mr Greed’ (Matthew Caputo, Thomas-Lee Kidd and Omari Douglas) perform the slick choreography with real flair.
The backbone of the show and of this production, however, is undoubtedly the strength of the vocalists, most notably Sharon D. Clarke, playing veteran hooker Sonja. Her presence is sublime and she brings a level of honesty and gravitas to the production that it would otherwise lack. Her performance of ‘The Oldest Profession’ is absolutely not to be missed. Despite this, the reliance on the vocal performance to deliver the intensity in other members of the cast sometimes leaves a little to be desired in their acting, with the long first act slumping slightly towards its close – but this is caught by powerhouse performances from Clarke and Cornell S. John, playing the terrifying pimp Memphis.
As well as the obvious social commentary around sex work and male ownership of women in 1970s New York, the racial disparity in success is also salient. When Mary, a young white woman, arrives from Minnesota, she is taken under the wing of wannabe pimps JoJo and Fleetwood and quickly displaces Queen in Fleetwood’s affections. The speed at which she is picked up by a professional porn producer reflects the enduring racism in the States.
This show also owes a lot to the ingenuity of the creative team in its staging. Nina Dunn’s beautifully incorporated projection design allows the space to be easily transformed without complex set changes. Additionally, Justin Nardella does wonders with the costume design, capturing the highs and lows of 1970s fashion.
Above all, this production is a celebration of talent with a truly diverse cast. Seeing a variety of female bodies on stage was a breath of fresh air, and is something that other productions should take note of, not just on the fringe. The UK premiere of The Life could not be more timely and with a few tweaks, this production could be a real hit.
The Life runs at Southwark Playhouse until 29th April, with matinees on Tuesdays and Saturdays. Tickets can be purchased online at http://southwarkplayhouse.co.uk/show/the-life/ or by calling the box office on 020 7407 0234.
Sharon D. Clarke
Cornell S. John
Tom Jackson Greaves
Set and Costume Designer
David Adkin Limited
Amy Anzel, Matt Chisling and Catherine Schreiber
Bruno Wang, Andrea Leoncini
Carlos Arana and Jim Kierstead