Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, Theatre Royal, Stratford East - theatre review

4.00

Not a masterpiece but more than a Cockney knees-up

The Joan Littlewood centenary celebrations continue in style at her old stomping ground with Terry Johnson's witty and rollicking revival of Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, the Theatre Workshop's 1959 success which transferred from Stratford East for a two-year run in the West End.

The legendary director had been sent the script of a straight play about life in the Soho underworld by ex-con Frank Norman.  It was her idea to turn the material into a musical and to invite Lionel Bart (one year away from superstardom with Oliver!) to contribute the songs. 

Littlewood described the resulting show as “like Guys and Dolls but with its flies undone” – an assessment that cannot be accused of false modesty, given the slightness of the plot and the fact that Bart's catchy score feels a couple of numbers short of the full deck.  The current production attempts to remedy these problems with a script that has been drolly adapted by Elliot Davis and by the inclusion of songs from the Bart back catalogue such as the Cliff Richard hit  “Living Doll”.

To call the show a “period piece” pinpoints both its limitations and its strengths.  It may be no ageless classic but it does capture with cartoon vividness a time of transition between Fifties austerity and intimations of the Swinging Sixties. 

The proceedings unfold in a subterranean Soho dive which is the haunt of gamblers, pimps, spivs and prostitutes glad to take the weight off their feet between shifts.  Fred, the guv'nor of this “manor” (a wonderfully dented-looking Mark Arden), is newly returned from a stint in the slammer and is dismayed by how much fings have changed (“There's Teds wiv drainpipe trousers/And poofs in coffee houses”). He needs to re-establish his authority now under threat from a rival gangster and from a bent copper. The latter (a nicely world-weary Gary Kemp)  is keen on a career-change because he “can't remember what it was like to walk into a room without someone running out of it”. Here that someone tends to be Christopher Ryan's hilarious Red Hot, a pint-sized crook with a speech impediment who may be a bungler at ordinary burglary but sure knows how to steal a scene.

There's music hall bounce, Gilbert and Sullivan patter and late Fifties pop in Bart's beguiling score and the additional numbers have been shoe-horned in with likeable cheek. 

The Anthony Newley hit “(If I Say I Love You) Do You Mind?” becomes the insinuating song by which they teach newcomer Rosie (Sarah Middleton) the tricks of the game. You feel like cheering when this needy individual, who has been battered by one of the clients and outrageously proposed to by Stefan Booth's quiffed, callous ponce, decides to leave at the end, declaring that she's going to Stevenage: “I hear it's going to be lovely when it's finished”. 

There are outstanding performances from Jessie Wallace in vibrant voice as Fred's tough common-law wife who pines for respectability, and Suzie Chard who is both irresistibly funny and subtle as Betty, the hefty tart-with-a-heart.

The show is not a masterpiece but it's more than a Cockney knees-up.

To June 8: 020 8534 0310

Arts and Entertainment
Wonder.land Musical by Damon Albarn

Theatre

Arts and Entertainment

Film review

Arts and Entertainment
Innocent victim: Oli, a 13-year-old from Cornwall, featured in ‘Kids in Crisis?’
TV review
News
Northern exposure: social housing in Edinburgh, where Hassiba now works in a takeaway
books An Algerian scientist adjusts to life working in a kebab shop
Arts and Entertainment
Terminator Genisys: Arnie remains doggedly true to his word as the man who said 'I'll be back', returning once more to protect Sarah Connor in a new instalment

 

film review
Arts and Entertainment

festivals
Arts and Entertainment

Final Top Gear review

TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Pete Doherty and Carl Barat perform at Glastonbury 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Lionel Richie performs live on the Pyramid stage during the third day of Glastonbury Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Buying a stairway to Hubbard: the Scientology centre in Los Angeles
film review Chilling inside views on a secretive church
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Williamson, left, and Andrew Fearn of Sleaford Mods
musicYou are nobody in public life until you have been soundly insulted by Sleaford Mods
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dew (Jess) in Bend It Like Beckham The Musical
theatreReview: Bend It Like Beckham hits back of the net on opening night
Arts and Entertainment
The young sea-faring Charles Darwin – seen here in an 1809 portrait – is to be portrayed as an Indiana Jones-style adventurer
film
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Is this the future of flying: battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks?

    Is this the future of flying?

    Battery-powered planes made of plastic, and without flight decks
    Isis are barbarians – but the Caliphate is a dream at the heart of all Muslim traditions

    Isis are barbarians

    but the Caliphate is an ancient Muslim ideal
    The Brink's-Mat curse strikes again: three tons of stolen gold that brought only grief

    Curse of Brink's Mat strikes again

    Death of John 'Goldfinger' Palmer the latest killing related to 1983 heist
    Greece debt crisis: 'The ministers talk to us about miracles' – why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum

    'The ministers talk to us about miracles'

    Why Greeks are cynical ahead of the bailout referendum
    Call of the wild: How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate

    Call of the wild

    How science is learning to decode the way animals communicate
    Greece debt crisis: What happened to democracy when it’s a case of 'Vote Yes or else'?

    'The economic collapse has happened. What is at risk now is democracy...'

    If it doesn’t work in Europe, how is it supposed to work in India or the Middle East, asks Robert Fisk
    The science of swearing: What lies behind the use of four-letter words?

    The science of swearing

    What lies behind the use of four-letter words?
    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain: Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won't have him back

    The Real Stories of Migrant Britain

    Clive fled from Zimbabwe - now it won’t have him back
    Africa on the menu: Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the continent

    Africa on the menu

    Three foodie friends want to popularise dishes from the hot new continent
    Donna Karan is stepping down after 30 years - so who will fill the DKNY creator's boots?

    Who will fill Donna Karan's boots?

    The designer is stepping down as Chief Designer of DKNY after 30 years. Alexander Fury looks back at the career of 'America's Chanel'
    10 best statement lightbulbs

    10 best statement lightbulbs

    Dare to bare with some out-of-the-ordinary illumination
    Wimbledon 2015: Heather Watson - 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Heather Watson: 'I had Serena's poster on my wall – now I'm playing her'

    Briton pumped up for dream meeting with world No 1
    Wimbledon 2015: Nick Bollettieri - It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve

    Nick Bollettieri's Wimbledon Files

    It's time for big John Isner to produce the goods to go with his thumping serve
    Dustin Brown: Who is the tennis player who knocked Rafael Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?

    Dustin Brown

    Who is the German player that knocked Nadal out of Wimbeldon 2015?
    Ashes 2015: Damien Martyn - 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Damien Martyn: 'England are fired up again, just like in 2005...'

    Australian veteran of that Ashes series, believes the hosts' may become unstoppable if they win the first Test