Part Shaft and part Boogie Nights, The Life at the Southwark Playhouse packs a whole lot of musical into a tiny venue.
Diving into the hustle of the pimps, hookers, and assorted hangers-on of early Koch-era New York, the lyrics summarise the plot: “You gotta use what you got, to get what you want, before what you want is gone”.
Queen, played with dignity by T’Shan Williams, is hooking to support her boyfriend, the drug addicted Vietnam vet Fleetwood. But when fresh-faced, girl next door Mary arrives in New York, fresh off the bus from Minnesota, Fleetwood sees a chance to turn her out, and make a better life for himself and Queen. Inevitably things go awry.
The story of an innocent drawn into sexual degradation is almost cliché, so it is a pleasant surprise that Mary’s trajectory is somewhat different – Joanna Woodward’s performance swerves convincingly from ingénue to va-va-voom, a catalyst for the actions of others, and not the focus of the plot.
Cornell S John’s coolly menacing portrayal is a magnificent recreation of the badass villains of countless Blaxploitation movies, and benefits from the heft that such associations immediately lend the role.
The two most interesting roles both won Tony awards for the actors who played them in the 1997 Broadway production. Sonja is the heart of the show, given powerful, soulful voice by Sharon D Clarke, and The Life is ultimately a platonic love story about the relationship between her and Queen.
The hardened pimp Memphis is Sonja’s ruthless opposite. Cornell S John’s coolly menacing portrayal is a magnificent recreation of the badass villains of countless Blaxploitation movies, and benefits from the heft that such associations immediately lend the role.
The production is overlong and a little ragged, with some minor missteps in the choreography and technical glitches in the set. And while the lyrics are sharp and the music period appropriate, neither coalesce into a truly memorable song.
But dedicated, vigorous performances, and the intimacy of the small theatre, make it easy to overlook such deficiencies.