Fings Ain't Wot They Used t' Be
Music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, book by Frank Norman
Theatre Royal Stratford East with Elliot Davis, Paul Tyrer & Jamie Clark, and Ros Povey for Fings Productions Ltd
Theatre Royal Stratford East
Was Soho really as seedy as the blurry black and white photographs with which director Terry Johnson opens his lively production of Fings?
To this young provincial in the 50s, it seemed excitingly glamorous with its restaurants and dives but those pictures entirely match the world of pimps and tarts and crooks this musical presents. In fact they don’t show 1959, when it is set, when new legislation had forced the ladies off the streets, but, like the first rendition of the title song and the characters who sing it, look back to an earlier era.
Fings repeats its famous hit song to mark the change from a nostalgia romanticising the seedy past, through the gangland period of the Krays to a dubious future of reform.
However, despite its Theatre Workshop origins, this picture of the underworld (literally in William Dudley’s subterranean design) is not a left-wing critique, a satire on society. Workshop director Joan Littlewood (Britain’s first Mother Courage) was not emulating Brecht but a clichéd gangster story with bent cop, young innocent, tart with a heart of gold, comic crooks that’s wrapped up with a wedding and supposedly going straight—though that seems unlikely.
Fings began as 48 pages of dialogue by ex-con Frank Norman, who had just published his autobiographical Bang To Rights, which were worked on by Littlewood and her company. She brought in Lionel Bart, who had already won awards for his pop songs.
That original version had a cast that included Richard Harris, Howard Goorney, Yootha Joyce, Dudley Sutton, Sheelagh Delaney, James Booth, Clive Barker, Brian Murphy, Ann Beach, Glynn Edwards and Eileen Kennally. It was further worked on and transferred to the West End with cast changes that introduced Miriam Karlin and Barbara Windsor.
This production is a new adaptation by Elliot Davis, who worked closely with Bart in his later years, that reshapes the play and introduces some extra Bart numbers. These include hits “Living Doll” (written at about the same time for Cliff Richard), “Do You Mind” (written for Anthony Newley) and the title song from another Workshop show “Sparrers Can’t Sing” which are used effectively as part of the story.
Though some of the numbers do grow naturally from the scenario, they remain a succession of songs and though sometimes the characters may spring surprises they are not written to make the audience care much about them. Despite the fact that the milieu and the situations may well reflect the real world of the time in criminal quarters, eschewing any whitewash to make you like them, the lack of depth makes it feel like fabrication.
It requires some powerful playing to make these characters charismatic. Fortunately it gets it, along with some real old-fashioned cockney that sounds genuine—not the estuary accents and south London Caribbean of so many London youngsters today—wide-mouthed and making the whole face shape it.
Knife-scarred Fred may be a big boss whose power is waning but Mark Arden delivers a big performance. So to does Jessie Wallace as his put-upon partner Lil. Sarah Middleton’s Rosie charms everyone as she sings “Where Do Little Birds Go?” but though new to the game she is not quite so innocent as that makes people think.
Suzie Chard’s big-bosomed Betty has a matching warm-hearted presence and a sincerity that is intriguingly matched with Gary Kemp’s rather understated playing of bent cop Collins while Stefan Booth gives ponce Tosher, with his DA coiffure and quiff, a surface charm that almost makes you like him.
If John Olohan’s Paddy is close to a cliché Irishman and Christopher Ryan’s Red Hot with his dirty old overcoat and incomprehensible jabber becomes a music hall turn, they form a bridge to caricature gay designer of Ryan Molloy and such OTT elements as the pavement lights over Fred’s premises being splashed with blood until it blocks out the daylight to bring the knife-fight between Fred and gang rival Meatface almost on stage.
This production’s reflection of the real world and its variety bill elements don’t quite blend, but the company’s energy and Bart’s numbers, which increase in intensity at the end of the evening, sustain attention and should send you home singing.
Reviewer: Howard Loxton