Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be continues at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, London until 8 June.
Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be was initially developed in 1959 by Joan Littlewood and her Theatre Workshop Company at Theatre Royal Stratford East before transferring to the West End, where it won an Evening Standard Award for Best Musical and launched the career of Barbara Windsor. It also provided a hit song by Max Bygraves, albeit with bowdlerized lyrics.
Originally it was intended to be just a play, written by ex-con Frank Norman, but the composer Lionel Bart was taken on board to write songs for the show.
Set at the end of the 1950s, preceding the birth of rock‘n’roll and the Beatles, it is set within an East End underworld of gamblers, spivs, prostitutes and Teddy Boys. The show tells the tale of Fred, a loveable rogue, who comes out of prison to find he is not quite the king of the manor he once was. For its time it was outrageous, and the theatre was frequently visited by the Lord Chamberlain’s staff who issued cast members with warning notes.
Seeing a student production a couple of year’s back, I came away disappointed. Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be was of its time and no longer funny. Happily, the award-winning composer and writer Elliot Davis has adapted the original Norman script with new material and incorporated songs from the Lionel Bart songbook, including ’If I Say I Love You Do You Mind?’, ‘Living Doll’ and ‘Sparrers Can’t Sing’ (a song written for the 1963 film of the same name and directed by Littlewood). Davis would seem to be well qualified for the task as he knew Bart and acted as his amanuensis at times, transferring Bart’s melodies from a dictaphone to sheet music.
Davis, along with director Terry Johnson and the creative team have managed to breathe life back into the show. Fun has returned as the cast plays it very much tongue in cheek, often passing remarks directly to the audience. We get an East End knees-up that mixes music hall with melodrama – EastEnders with music might be a fair description. Appropriately enough, the company is led by Jessie Wallace, taking a break from playing TV’s Kat Slater and moving from Walford to Soho. She slips into the role of Lil, long time girlfriend of Fred, with ease, and proves that she is no slouch when it comes to singing and dancing. She has great fun with ‘Layin’ Abaht’ and ‘The Ceiling’s Coming Dahn’.
The book still creaks a bit with the slang and Geezer-speak sounding very archaic and sitting uncomfortably with the rest of the production. However, the newly introduced songs fit in well. ‘If I Say I Love You Do You Mind?’ allows the experienced prostitutes to instruct newcomer Rosie into the ways of their trade. While ‘Living Doll’ becomes more of a duel rather than a duet between Fred and the bent DC Collins as each seeks to impress the love of their lives. Mark Arden and Gary Kemp give strong performances as two hard cases with soft underbellies. They are matched by Stefan Booth as Tosher, the girl’s pimp who explains his craft in ‘The Student Ponce’.
‘Contempery’ allows Ryan Molloy to camp it up as Horace, the interior designer, while Sarah Middleton is delightful as Rosie. Despite her sweetness and innocence she proves that she can be a tough cookie and has an exit line that produces the biggest laugh of the evening.
But there are two performances that steal the show – Christopher Ryan as old lag, Red Hot and Suzie Chard’s Betty, the proverbial tart with a heart. Ryan is a comic treat throughout, highlighted in the tango number ‘Where It’s Hot’ and also in ‘Meatface’. Chard is a statuesque young lady (if I am allowed such a comment in view of the brouhaha caused by fellow reviewers at Glyndebourne) and she uses her size to hilarious effect. She has a talent for droll comedy and sings up a storm with ‘Big Time’.
Readers may also be interested in:
Fings Ain’t What They Used T’Be opens at Stratford East – News
Oh What a Lovely War – Theatre Royal Stratford East – Review