Friday, 14 April 2017

'The Life' at Southwark Playhouse

Southwark Playhouse continues its current penchant for putting on musicals that are either little performed or haven't been performed in London before by giving 'This Life' its European premier. This is the latest in a line of shows it's put on over the past couple of years that keeps making us trek over to the unrelenting drabness of Elephant & Castle.

The show is a bit of an oddity really, written in the '90s and set supposedly in the '80s but shrieked '70s at me, with some great tunes but then others that hark back to the song and dance shows of the '50s (particularly the incongruity of the pimp, the stripper and the pornographer linking arms to dance and high kick at the prospect of yet more money). But, the book held it together, telling a tale that kept me engaged and interested and wanting to see what happens next. I didn't guess the ending at all, so well done on that!

It's a tale of pimps and prostitutes, violence and drugs set in seedy New York before it was cleaned up for tourists. We're introduced to a group of prostitutes and various pimps but the main characters are Queenie and Fleetwood, young lovers living on the street to get the money together to move away, and of Sonja and Memphis, an older prostitute and her pimp, all brought together by wannabe hustler Jojo. Sonja is the only one who has any time for Queenie and her lover Fleetwood just uses her to fund his drug habit.

The troupe of prostitutes were actually quite nice folks and the men were unrelenting bastards so it's a bit one-sided but struck me as true having seen all those '70s cop shows based in New York.  Did Fleetwood ever love Queenie or was she always just a meal ticket? Who knows? Does anyone have any real friends in that world where no-one seems to trust anyone once they're out of their sight apart from Sonja and Queenie?  What is clear is that Memphis in his pimp leather coat has no feelings for anyone but himself  and he's a really chilling character. You don't want to mess with Memphis.

There are lots of songs in this show, a song for every couple of minutes of dialogue, and that keeps the pace moving forward. One of the joys is the start of the second half and the Hookers Ball where they all come dressed to the nines in fantastic and glittery frocks, especially when Sonja appears with Memphis and poses, followed by Queenie in her golden shiny frock who takes her place behind Memphis. And then it all goes wrong. But you need to see the show to find out what's gone wrong.

I was very impressed - as ever - by Sharon D Clarke as Sonja, the prostitute who's about had enough of the streets and is tired and feels ill. She utters the only '80s-type words when she comments that she feels ill and maybe it's something new, alluding possibly to HIV and AIDS. She's a convincing matriarch to our little group, been there and done that so many times she's lost count. And what a great voice! Sharon never lets you down. 

The pleasant discovery of the show was T'Shan Williams as Queenie. She only graduated from acting school a couple of years ago so isn't that experienced but was terribly impressive playing the vulnerable Queenie. Plus she has a great voice and duets with Sharon and holds her own. T'Shan is definitely someone worth watching for in future. An actress of power, turning the mood on a word and a great singer. Shame about the strangely shaped wig she was wearing.

Something I'm noticing more and more is that the great female performances I see aren't matched by the male performances. I don't really understand that at all, but it does seem to be a trend at the moment. The lead men aren't really a patch on the women except for Cornell S John as Memphis who is as menacing a villain as you could want. He'd be a good Iago, I think, deeply nasty beneath the surface but can make you believe whatever he wants. Single-minded and focused and he deserves everything he gets. But you need to see the show to find out what that is.

All in all, I loved this show, faults included. It's always nice to see Sharon and it was lovely to discover T'Shan, but the whole show worked for me. I'm tempted to see it again...

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