I first heard the score to The Life when Cy Coleman came over to the UK with his trio to do a concert at the International Festival of Musical Theatre in 2002. The Life was featured as part of the evening and I fell in love with the stunning final duet, ‘My Friend’. I was intrigued by the concept of a show that is set in Times Square during the 1970s/1980s period when it was a dangerous hotbed of violence, drugs and prostitution – far from the cleaned-up Disneyfied square it is today.

The Life was lyricist Ira Gasman’s idea – one night in the early 1980s he witnessed pimps getting arrested and he thought that the world of the the streetwalkers – hookers, pimps, pickpockets and hustlers – would make great drama for the theatre. Combining that world with Cy Coleman’s jazz infused score – probably his finest since Sweet Charity – makes for a gritty yet humorous snapshot of life in New York at that time.

The drama of the piece is further intensified by its staging in the intimate Southwark Playhouse which is fast becoming the place to see ‘lost’ Broadway musicals on a budget price. It’s rare, too, for the show’s original director, Michael Blakemore, to reinvent the show for its London premiere exactly 20 years after its Broadway run.

His leading lady Sharon D. Clarke is perfect for the role of Sonja, the older prostitute in the story. Clarke totally inhabits the character, from the way she stands and surveys, with the world-weary confidence of someone who’s been around the block a thousand times and seen it all, to the way she protects Queen, a younger prostitute. Clarke’s rendition of ‘The Oldest Profession’ – in which Sonja tots up the amount of clients she’s had and realises that she’s slept with over 15,000 men – quite rightly stops the show.

Queen (T’Shan Williams) sells herself while her no-good boyfriend Fleetwood (David Albury)  spends the money on his nightly fix – she knows ‘He’s no good’ for her but is stuck in a downward spiral and turns to villainous pimp Memphis (Cornell S. John – who makes Miss Saigon’s Engineer look like Mary Poppins!).

In this sleek production of a tale of characters who’ve hit a moral rock bottom, Tom Jackson-Greaves’ well-energised choreography fills the space. The opening ‘Check It Out’ – where the prostitutes sell their wares, the company writhing their way in and out of the audience – creates the perfect atmosphere for this story of a group of desperate people just trying to get by.

Clarke and Williams wring every ounce of emotion out of that final duet, ‘My Friend’, too. Cy Coleman would have been proud.