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The Life review at Southwark Playhouse, London – ‘gritty and glorious’

The cast of The Life at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Conrad Blakemore The cast of The Life at Southwark Playhouse, London. Photo: Conrad Blakemore
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The 1980 Broadway musical 42nd Street – about a girl who gets off the bus from Allentown determined to make it in show business in 1930s New York – is about to make its return to London.

The Life, first seen on Broadway in 1997 and now finally receiving its London premiere, also features a girl who gets off the bus – this time from Duluth, Minnesota – and finds herself lured into a seamier New York of prostitutes, pimps, drug dealers, strip clubs and porn. This is before the Disneynfication of 42nd Street. It’s a big step beyond the “hostess” club of composer Cy Coleman’s Broadway smash of 31 years earlier, Sweet Charity, but continues the theme.

It’s a thrusting, strutting show, gritty, dark and edgy, as it exposes the desperation, naked need and also the humanity of the sex trade. Coleman adorns it with one of his most scintillating jazz-based scores, stunningly played by a very generous 11-piece band under Tamara Saringer.

Michael Blakemore, who directed the original, now returns, aged 88, to do so again, and he gives it a fluent ease, even if it feels a little overlong, with dazzling choreography by Tom Jackson Grieves and evocatively seedy sets by Justin Nardella. Best of all is the exceptionally strong casting, led by a ferocious Sharon D Clarke as a veteran sex worker. There’s also a glorious new discovery in T’Shan Williams, longing for an escape from it all, and terrific work too from Cornell S John and David Albury as their pimps.


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Gritty and glorious London premiere of 20-year-old Broadway musical