Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be

Book by Frank Norman, music and lyrics by Lionel Bart

Union Theatre

(2011)

Review by Philip Fisher

Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be aspires to be a Cockney Guys and Dolls but book writer Frank Norman was no Damon Runyon. Where the American's characters exude loveable rascality, their counterparts in 1950s Soho fail to rise above seediness.

This is an iconic work for two reasons. First, like Oh What a Lovely War, it emerged from Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop in Stratford East. Back in its heyday, this egalitarian operation went head to head with the Royal Court and only barely came off second best.

Secondly, the music and yrics were written by Lionel Bart, who was about to take off into the stratosphere with Oliver!, which benefited from a superb book that originated with the greatest English novelist of the previous century.

Phil Willmott gets off to a good start with a brilliant auditorium-encompassing set designed by Oliver Townsend, which, together with some risqué costumes, perfectly catch the period and locale.

The evening is spent in a failing Soho brothel run by small-time gangster Fred and his loyal doll, Lil, played by Neil McCaul and Hannah-Jane Fox. The dive is frequented by a tawdry mix of thick criminals, thick prostitutes and thick coppers as well as in one scene, a couple of thick toffs.

Soho is changing, as we learn from the title song, head and shoulders above any other, which is apparent from its regular reappearances through the two hours.

Recent ex-con Fred needs cash, Lil wants a husband and the man with the charming sobriquet of Meatface wants to muscle in on the patch along with his pals Ronnie and Reggie.

That is all the plot that you get. The rest is down to staging and performances from the 21 enthusiastic occupants of the stage, including two musicians.

The highpoints almost all come from some sublime dance routines in a confined space, courtesy of choreographer Nick Winston, the pick of which is a tap-dance from a talented quartet.

The music and lyrics are a curtain-raiser for Bart's finest moment but are not by this stage at the peak that he subsequently reached.

The evening suffers terribly from a series of Cockney accents that are neither accurate nor, in far too many cases, intelligible, largely because then consonants are forgone in an effort to perfect the vowels.

What one therefore takes away from the revival is a sense of time and place, one highly memorable tune and the dance.