The Life review – New York's sleazy underbelly gets a musical sparkle

Southwark Playhouse, London
This show about 42nd Street in the 1980s is imaginatively staged with the ever-magnificent Sharon D Clarke but it’s a tough sell

The low-life musical has a long history that includes Guys and Dolls and Irma La Douce. But where they swathed gambling and prostitution in fairytale fables, this show, first seen on Broadway 20 years ago, aims to capture the grit and grime of New York’s 42nd Street before it was cleaned up. For all the efforts of Cy Coleman (music), Ira Gasman (lyrics) and David Newman (who co-authored the book), The Life still can’t avoid putting a gloss on an essentially tawdry milieu.

The story shows sex worker Queen attempting to escape her world with her pimp and lover, Fleetwood, a Vietnam veteran and drug addict. When he goes after a new recruit to the game and Queen falls prey to a brutal hustler, their chances of flight are seriously endangered.

John Addison (left, as Jojo), left, in The Life.
John Addison (left, as Jojo), left, in The Life. Photograph: Tristram Kenton/The Guardian

However, for all the songs about dreams, nothing matches There’s Gotta Be Something Better Than This from Coleman’s Sweet Charity. The best numbers here are marginal to the main action. The ever-magnificent Sharon D Clarke at one point throatily informs us: “I’m getting too old for the oldest profession.” In Mr Greed, dance is used to remind us that gambling, like sex work, depends on gullible punters.

Michael Blakemore imaginatively re-creates a show he directed in New York and the performances are good. T’Shan Williams as the questing Queen, Cornell S John as a cool super-pimp and Jo Servi as a rhyming barman all impress. But the inherent exuberance of the musical form militates against Zola-esque realism and, for all its energy and verve, three hours is a long time to spend in this sleazy sub-world.

• At Southwark Playhouse, London, until 29 April. Box office: 020-7407 0234.


Michael Billington

The GuardianTramp

Related Content

Article image
Ghost the Musical – review
The real stars are Rob Howell's sets and Jon Driscoll's video designs, which graphically recreate the kaleidoscopic frenzy of Manhattan life, writes Michael Billington

Michael Billington

19, Jul, 2011 @10:00 PM

Article image
Promises, Promises review – Bacharach's musical makeover of Wilder's Apartment
A revival of Neil Simon’s adaptation of the Billy Wilder classic, with songs by Bacharach and Hal David, is well performed but gratingly anachronistic

Michael Billington

18, Jan, 2017 @11:28 AM

Article image
Bananaman review – can Eric Wimp turn into a musical superhero?
After some banana-skin slip-ups, this comedy about the spotty teenager turned caped blunderer gathers some final, resounding laughter

Kate Wyver

05, Jan, 2018 @2:29 PM

Article image
Carrie review – Stephen King shocker gets a High School Musical makeover
A mesmerising performance by Evelyn Hoskins as the flame-haired teenage avenger fires this revival of the RSC’s slaughterhouse Cinderella

Lyn Gardner

07, May, 2015 @4:17 PM

Article image
Side Show review – a spectacle in song about real-life 'freak' sister act
Inspired performances elevate a problematic musical about conjoined twins who were exploited first in life and then on the stage

Lyn Gardner

30, Oct, 2016 @4:12 PM

Article image
The Life review – down but not out in 80s New York
Even the magnificent Sharon D Clarke can’t make this long and cluttered musical shine as it should

Kate Kellaway

02, Apr, 2017 @6:45 AM

Article image
Floyd Collins review – subterranean homesick bluegrass in sentimental satire
There are some striking performances in this musical about an explorer stuck underground, but too many of the lyrics are incomprehensible

Michael Billington

29, Sep, 2016 @11:59 AM

Article image
Grand Hotel review – roaring 20s musical, staged with glittering panache
Perfectly drilled dance, stunning vocals and stylish direction fuel this cross-section of luxury hotel life in 20s Berlin

Michael Billington

06, Aug, 2015 @12:37 PM

Article image
Working review – Lin-Manuel Miranda retunes Terkel's paean to American labour
This musical revue – which originally flopped on Broadway – features exquisite performances and songs by Hamilton’s creator but still feels quaintly nostalgic

Lyn Gardner

09, Jun, 2017 @10:53 AM

Article image
Allegro review – Rodgers and Hammerstein's doctor dances through small-town drama
Thom Southerland directs the European premiere of this musical about an Everyman’s dilemma, but it’s too detached from the wider story of America

Michael Billington

14, Aug, 2016 @12:14 PM