Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be

Magazine article The Spectator

Theatre: Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be

Article excerpt

Credit: Lloyd Evans

Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be

Stratford East, until 8 June

Johnny Got His Gun

Southwark Playhouse, until 14 June

Joan Littlewood's greatest disservice to the theatre was to champion 'the right to fail', which encouraged writers and directors to inflict a thousand shades of bilge on play-goers for many decades. But she deserves a place in the pantheon for an inspired decision taken in 1959. Offered a new play about Soho's underworld, written by the ex-con Frank Norman, she invited a young pop composer to turn it into a larky musical. Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be opened at Littlewood's East End lair and transferred to the Garrick where it ran for nearly 900 performances. The young composer was Lionel Bart.

Reborn at its original venue, this fantastic production reveals Bart's musical inventiveness as it ascends towards the sublime heights it reached in his masterpiece Oliver! The opening feels similar. A homeless innocent, adopted by charming London scoundrels, is drawn into a life of criminality. The drama is underpinned by the social realities of the 1950s. Soho is changing. The 'ponces' (pimps) and their 'brasses' (hookers) feel threatened by unfamiliar new influences. Their beloved 'palais' (dance hall) has become a bowling alley. Parking meters have appeared 'outside our doors to greet us'. And there are 'kids in drainpipe trousers and poofs in coffee houses'. Bart's flair for these compact little rhymes never falters, and though they seem a bit flat on the page they soar heavenwards when harnessed to his bewitchingly simple melodies. He gets laughs from violence too. 'Once, in days of yore,' sings an old gangster, 'ponces killed a lazy whore.'

The main storyline, a turf war between a crime boss and an upstart rival, spawns a host of smaller side plots. An ageing brass urges her ponce to become a barrow boy. A recidivist tea leaf (thief) nicks a haul of goods that are accidentally resold to their upper-crust owner. A bent copper wants to become an honest crook and open his own 'spieler' (gambling den). This narrative richness gives the show the lived-in texture of a three-volume novel. The direction, by Terry Johnson, brims with energy and humour and every performance is bang on the money. Christopher Ryan stands out as Red Hot, a professional housebreaker. Ryan may be the size of a postbox, and about as threatening as a rocking horse, but his physical mastery is sublime and his sense of comedy faultless. Gary Kemp shines as Collins, the corrupt copper, whose smoochy duets with Suzie Chard's Betty have a real sexual charge. …

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