There were emotional scenes on the opening night of this biographical songbook in memory of Lionel Bart. Richard O'Brien, who wrote The Rocky Horror Picture Show, said he sat through the evening in floods of tears. And the audience, representative of Bart's old East End stamping ground, stamped and cheered their approval.
Chris Bond's book, cleverly constructed around Bart's songs, awakens a sort of atavistic, "I-feel-better-now" response to musical theatre that has largely disappeared. The music plugs into a cockney heritage of music hall and post-variety pop, while the lyrics are smart without being twee.
The conceit of telling Bart's life through those songs is corny, and some may squirm at the sight of Fagin-style financial advisers instructing Bart on his uppers in the art of "picking a pocket or two". But once you have got over the scene in which Joan Littlewood (Diana Croft) welcomes Bart to Stratford East with a rousing chorus of "Consider Yourself at Home", the rest isn't really a problem.
For the "real" characters - Bart, his mother, Littlewood, Barbara Windsor - are indistinguishable as stage creatures from the fictional Fagin, Bill Sikes, Nancy Sikes and Robin Hood, just as beautiful songs such as "Leave It To the Ladies" from Blitz, "The Ceilin's Comin' Dahn" from Fings Ain't Wot They Used To Be (sung by a zonked out Bart flat on the floor), and "Unseen Hands" from La Strada, Bart's ill-fated Broadway stab at Fellini (it closed on the second night in 1969), slip their moorings to demonstrate a lyrical talent in another context.
Apart from the narrative detail of the East End pop song writer hitting it big with Oliver! in 1960 and declining into oblivion within a decade, the show's theme is a search for love. Bart was an untutored genius - he always said he couldn't tell the difference between A-flat and a council flat - whose restless emotional life is conveyed in Oliver's "Where Is Love?" or in a transvestite sitting on a diving board by a Hockney swimming pool confessing "As Long As He Needs Me".
The cast of 10 switch roles and, supervised at the keyboard by David Barber, pick up instruments. Bob Carlton's direction keeps a good tempo and a good spirit all night, so that when Windsor (Karen Fisher-Pollard) sings "Where Do Little Birds Go?" from Sparrers Can't Sing as a reprise, Bart's fate, and a poignant place in theatre history, is sealed with a loving kiss.
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