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Guest Blog: “The Life” at Southwark Playhouse

April 5, 2017

A review of the first preview matinee performance from guest blogger Bob Pickett:

The Life is set around New York ‘ Times Square in the 1980s, a nadir in the moral fabric of the city, when everything was available if you had the cash (“Check it out!”). It tells the tale of hookers,  their pimps and their lives.  Narrated by JoJo (John Addison) – a white trash ‘entrepreneur’ riding the coat – tails of more successful hustlers – The Life concentrates on four main characters: Sonja  (Sharon D. Clarke), a veteran hookers who is something of a big sister to the other working girls, Queen (T’Shan Williams), who is working the streets to support her ex – Vietnam vet Fleetwood  (David Albury), a would-be ‘player’ whose drug habit drags the pair down every time they look like being able to escape, and Mary (Joanna Woodward), a fresh off the bus innocent who JoJo and Fleetwood connive to turn into an earner for them.

Vital to the story is Memphis  (Cornell S. John), the big pimp and player, who has designs on adding Queen to his ‘stable’ of girls.

The first act sets the scene. With a lot of the action coming from a bar owned by Lacy, a good hearted man who provides a warm place off the streets for the girls.  Here you see Sonja bemoan The Life, the aches and pains… and the first reference to not feeling right and doctors not knowing why (given the timeline the inference is clear).

From here the plot develops. Is JoJo really helping Fleetwood, or is he simply feeding – via Mary and Queen – his own ambitions by serving those higher up the food chain, Memphis and JoJo’s ‘mentor’ Lou, an adult film ‘producer’ looking for a blonde beauty for his biggest production yet.

Queen and Fleetwood are stretched to breaking point, and Mary isn’t quite what she seems…

Act two is set at the annual “Streetwalkers Ball” (a wicked thought here, did they have to arrange it on the same night as the policeman’s ball?) The players are pushed to the depths of despair, some steer themselves to where they want to go on the shoulders of others… and we find out, is there a way out of The Life?

Without a doubt, the star of the show is Sharon D.  Clarke. A fine actress, her voice has not only huge power, but such depth of emotion; her duets with T’Shan Williams are truly moving. Cornell S. John’s Memphis is truly frightening, a smooth-talking velvet persona hiding a ruthless underside (“My way or the Highway”). T’Shan Williams Queen is the character you want to come out in one piece, as she sinks in the game plans of others. And then there is Joanna Woodward’s Mary.  I have seen her pull off a similar character switch in Lost Boy, but the reveal is still utterly unexpected, and she draws upon her range of caberet and burlesque skills to great effect.

Great credit goes to the production crew for making full use of a tiny space. The simple set works really well (with just the one wobble of a prop), the back projection changes the location simply but effectively.

I saw the first preview matinee, inevitably there were a couple of minor niggles. A couple of times the microphones echoed and the singers voices were overwhelmed the band on one occasion. But the very first performance went as well as can be hoped, and a talented cast told The Life as a powerful tale of a low period in New York’s history and those who fought to survive.

 

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And many thanks to Bob for a fascinating review.

I’m taking a break over Easter, back 26th April. Have a good one all.

 

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