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

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

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Place Blanche, Paris, 1961, shot by Christer Strömholm
photographyHow the famous camera transformed photography for ever
Arts and Entertainment
The ‘Westmacott Athlete’
art
Arts and Entertainment
‘The Royals’ – a ‘twisted, soapy take on England’s first family’
tv Some of the characters appear to have clear real-life counterparts
News
Brooks is among a dozen show-business professionals ever to have achieved Egot status
people
Arts and Entertainment
A cut above: Sean Penn is outclassed by Mark Rylance in The Gunman
film review
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
James Franco and Zachary Quinto in I Am Michael

Film review Michael Glatze biopic isn't about a self-hating gay man gone straight

Arts and Entertainment
A scene from the movie 'Get Hard'
tvWill Ferrell’s new film Get Hard receives its first reviews
Arts and Entertainment
Left to right: David Cameron (Mark Dexter), Nick Clegg (Bertie Carvel) and Gordon Brown (Ian Grieve)
tvReview: Ian Grieve gets another chance to play Gordon Brown... this is the kinder version
Arts and Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman in the first look picture from next year's Sherlock special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Because it wouldn’t be Glastonbury without people kicking off about the headline acts, a petition has already been launched to stop Kanye West performing on the Saturday night

music
Arts and Entertainment
Molly Risker, Helen Monks, Caden-Ellis Wall, Rebekah Staton, Erin Freeman, Philip Jackson and Alexa Davies in ‘Raised by Wolves’

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
James May, Jeremy Clarkson and Richard Hammond in the Top Gear Patagonia Special

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Game of Thrones will run for ten years if HBO gets its way but showrunners have mentioned ending it after seven

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
Mans Zelmerlow will perform 'Heroes' for Sweden at the Eurovision Song Contest 2015

music
Arts and Entertainment
Elizabeth (Heida Reed) and Ross Poldark (Aiden Turner) in the BBC's remake of their 1975 original Poldark

Poldark review
  • Get to the point
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.

    No postcode? No vote

    Floating voters

    How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

    By Reason of Insanity

    Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
    Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

    Power dressing is back

    But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
    Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

    Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

    Caves were re-opened to the public
    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

    Vince Cable interview

    'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
    Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

    Promises, promises

    But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
    The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

    The death of a Gaza fisherman

    He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat
    Saudi Arabia's airstrikes in Yemen are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Saudi airstrikes are fuelling the Gulf's fire

    Arab intervention in Yemen risks entrenching Sunni-Shia divide and handing a victory to Isis, says Patrick Cockburn
    Zayn Malik's departure from One Direction shows the perils of fame in the age of social media

    The only direction Zayn could go

    We wince at the anguish of One Direction's fans, but Malik's departure shows the perils of fame in the age of social media
    Young Magician of the Year 2015: Meet the schoolgirl from Newcastle who has her heart set on being the competition's first female winner

    Spells like teen spirit

    A 16-year-old from Newcastle has set her heart on being the first female to win Young Magician of the Year. Jonathan Owen meets her
    Jonathan Anderson: If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    If fashion is a cycle, this young man knows just how to ride it

    British designer Jonathan Anderson is putting his stamp on venerable house Loewe
    Number plates scheme could provide a licence to offend in the land of the free

    Licence to offend in the land of the free

    Cash-strapped states have hit on a way of making money out of drivers that may be in collision with the First Amendment, says Rupert Cornwell
    From farm to fork: Meet the Cornish fishermen, vegetable-growers and butchers causing a stir in London's top restaurants

    From farm to fork in Cornwall

    One man is bringing together Cornwall's most accomplished growers, fishermen and butchers with London's best chefs to put the finest, freshest produce on the plates of some of the country’s best restaurants
    Robert Parker interview: The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes

    Robert Parker interview

    The world's top wine critic on tasting 10,000 bottles a year, absurd drinking notes and New World wannabes
    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    Don't believe the stereotype - or should you?

    We exaggerate regional traits and turn them into jokes - and those on the receiving end are in on it too, says DJ Taylor