The Life was performed by the Performance Preparation Academy at the Bellerby Theatre, Guildford.
Star rating: four stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ✩
The quality of work produced by musical theatre students continues to amaze.
In the same week as an outstanding Guys and Dolls by the long-established Guildford School of Acting was wowing audiences down the road, its frisky Surrey neighbour PPA, just nine years old, showed they can walk the walk too.
Their full-blooded, in-your-face production of The Life, a dark look at Manhattan lowlife of the 1980s when prostitution, pimps, dealers and drugs ruled 42nd Street in the frightened days of Vietnam and the arrival of AIDS, pulled no punches.
Prostitutes get beaten up, abused and raped in a world where everything, but everything, had its price. It’s an ugly tale with a sentimental ending.
Sonja, an ageing prostitute whose big earning days are behind her, takes the rap for poor, damaged Queen and helps her get away to a new life after she has shot violent scumbag Memphis, the pimp from hell.
Their touching farewell duet ‘My Friend’ is one of the more memorable songs in a show not over-endowed with them – few have stood the test of time – and gives a harsh evening the soft climax it needed to convey “the common humanity to which an audience can relate”.
In fact, people to relate to are hard to find. Even Mary, the innocent-looking perky-in-pink arrival off the bus from Minnesota, isn’t what she seems, using all her feminine wiles to make it to Hollywood.
She’ll be lucky to get there with her mentor, porn-movie maker Lou, on the lookout for fresh meat. Their ‘People Magazine’ duet, well sung by Louise Cannon and Martyn Sanderson, says it all.
Some tremendously strong voices in a huge cast are headed by Jo Mackie’s glorious mezzo-soprano. She has range and depth plus real stage presence as Queen and fine acting skills. A name to watch out for.
Robbie Fell (Memphis) and Queen’s pimp loser boyfriend Fleetwood (Steve Brown) are also bang on the money, Brown with ‘A Piece of the Action’ and ‘We Gotta Go’, Fell with ‘Don’t Take Much’ and the dramatic ’My Way Or the Highway’.
Aisha Williams’ powerful gospelly treatment of ‘The Oldest Profession’ – “I’ve been in seven beds today and slept in none of them” – echoes the hopeless downward spiral of those on the game, while Daniel Law, as bar owner Lacy, and Joseph Hewlett (JoJo) don’t waste their chances in a production that goes at lickety-spit pace under director Lucy Stewart and never lets up.
Musical director Mary McAdam drives her seven terrific student musicians to the limit, while Lewis Butler’s high-energy choreography floods the stage with adrenaline. It’s a great idea having the audience drinking at circular tables either side of the crowded action. The closeness of the cast adds to the atmosphere. It did get a bit shouty now and again. Less can often be more in not a huge space.
Cy Coleman’s music and Ira Gasman’s lyrics had been gathering cobwebs since 1998 after a respectable ten-month Broadway run and it is quite a coincidence that PPA should unearth it just a month before the professional UK premiere of The Life under its original British director Michael Blakemore at Southwark Playhouse.
It will be fascinating to see what Sharon D Clarke and company make of it. For PPA’s students it was an excellent choice, giving parts to 24 of them with the three main ones, Queen, Sonja and Mary, alternated.
Played by Mackie, Williams and Cannon when I saw it, Alice McKenna, Olivia Hanlon and Leah Carter took over on other days and I was sorry not to see them.
Meanwhile, PPA follows up immediately with Merrily We Roll Along in a story that runs backwards with Sondheim at his most devious. They certainly like a challenge, don’t they?
Readers may also be interested in:
The Life at Southwark Playhouse – casting details