Set in and around the sleaze of Times Square in the 1980s, Cy Coleman and Ira Gasman’s The Life garnered Tony and Drama Desk awards when Michael Blakemore directed its opening on Broadway in 1997. Twenty years later and with Blakemore again at the helm, the gritty musical crosses the Atlantic to open at the Southwark Playhouse next week.
The story focusses on Queen, a young woman of proud, principled intention who let down by the man she loves finds herself drawn into the complex criminality of prostitution. Sonja, an older and wiser hooker takes her under her wing…
T’Shan Williams plays Queen and we spoke during a break in rehearsals.
JB: Tell me first of all - What excites you about playing this role?
TW: Oh, the fact that Queen is not born into life that you see in the show. She's come from out of town, from a different area in the States and she’s moved to New York with dreams and aspirations. She's quite optimistic about what her life could be.
It just so happens that in the part that you see in the show, she has had to put her dreams on hold as she is sucked in to a mess that she didn't agree to.
JB: What are the complexities of your character that you're having to explore and discover?
TW: She has a certain sense of naivete because she didn't expect this to happen. She kind of got herself into a relationship where it just didn't work out right, so, it's basically I guess, her trying to be independent.
She's got a drive to be a better person, yet she's in a relationship where her partner is just quite happy with the situation they've ended up in.
So she is forced to choose between wrong and right, between love and a better life, that kind of thing, which is really quite hard for her.
What makes her such an appealing character though is the continuous optimism that she has, which is actually so inspiring and uplifting.
JB: I was lucky enough to be invited to your rehearsal last week and see a glimpse of the show up close, in particular duetting with Sharon D. Clarke who plays Sonja. What is it like working alongside Sharon?
TW: Oh, absolute pleasure. She's so amazingly talented, and Cornell S.John too. I'm learning new things from them everyday.
Sharon’s like a big sister. She's got such a powerful energy in the rehearsal space. It's such a lovely time working with her. The whole cast too, they're all just so talented.
JB: Tell me about working with and being directed by Michael Blakemore.
TW: He's just such a gent, a charming man. And, I've never worked with such a director before that's just so detailed. He doesn't miss a beat. Of course, this is kind of his baby, because obviously he directed it originally on Broadway. The show really has a place in his heart and it's just such a pleasure to be in the room with him.
JB: You are coming to The Life after a year in Book of Mormon. Have you worked in any off-West End productions before this?
TW: Yeah....ish! I did a season at the Arts Theatre in Leicester Square over Christmas and Ive toured But, that's kind of where my journey has been so far.
I only graduated in 2015 from drama school, so it has all been quite recent. But I've been lucky and had a good run in contracts so far. I love fringe theatre and I've always wanted to perform at the Southwark Playhouse because it's so intimate.
JB: That's great to hear. The rehearsal that I saw was electric - I'm looking forward to your press night next week.
The Life will run at the Southwark Playhouse from 25th March until 29th April.
Photo credit: Simon Turtle