Thursday, 29 May 2014

Review: Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, Theatre Royal Stratford East

"Once in golden days of yore
Ponces killed a lazy whore"

In a year celebrating the centenary of Joan Littlewood’s birth, the Theatre Royal Stratford East that she did so much to develop with Theatre Workshop can be forgiven for having a distinctly nostalgic tinge to its programming. But though this 1959 musical was both a critical and commercial success for Lionel Bart before he really hit the big time with Oliver!, it is also very much of its time and so proves a much less likely choice for revival than say, the glorious revisit of Oh What A Lovely War at this same venue earlier this year.

Even at the point of its writing, Fings… basked in a glow of barely earned nostalgia, a picture postcard version of the Soho underworld with an almost cartoon-like like approach to violence and absolutely no sense of responsibility or repercussions at all. The book was written by an ex-convict no less, Frank Norman, so one can see from where this longing for the good old days has sprung but it doesn’t undo the unpalatability of the material as it stands. And excusing it because it is a musical and so is all just good fun feels lazy and near irresponsible.

Lionel Bart’s highly tuneful score has been well refreshed by Elliot Davis and augmented with additional Bart numbers (the most notable, and notorious, of which is Living Doll) so it is frequently a joy to listen to. And Nathan M Wright’s choreography has a delicious energy which the company deliver well. But as dated stereotype follows thoroughly outmoded attitude, it becomes increasingly hard to feel nostalgic for such a time. Terry Johnson’s production asks us to swallow levels of camp and female submissiveness that frankly have no place in our culture.

When the pendulum finally, briefly, swings the other way, it is too little too late really, the damage already done in pandering to a state of affairs that ought to have been much more fully indicted. The show is well performed though – Mark Arden’s (anti-) hero is good as the gangland hoodlum wanting to reclaim former glories, Jessie Wallace ideally cast as his strident lover Lil, Christopher Ryan’s fading burglar an amusing sidebar, there is certainly enjoyment to be had here. But as for whether it is a period piece ripe for revival or a relic of the past that should be left to collect dust, that’s for you to decide. 

Running time: 2 hours 15 minutes (with interval)
Booking until 8th June

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