Nostalgia is firmly ‘in’ at Theatre Royal Stratford East. We had its important Oh, What A Lovely War! lambasted by the Education Secretary in February (remember?), the concept of ‘Fun Palaces’ to mark Joan Littlewood’s full centenary in October (watch this space) and, currently, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, Lionel Bart’s 1959 musical, a loving examination of a certain brand of east-end life.
Fings is all spivs, crooks, pimps and prostitutes, but Bart is never judgmental in his music and lyrics, nor is Frank Norman in his book, just acutely observant. This is an under-society firmly getting on and making do thank-you-very-much. Fings is one of those musicals that people have heard of, but can’t quite say what happens, so here goes: Fred’s luck finally changes when he makes enough betting on a horse to do up his tired and seedy bar, fully pay-off bent copper PC Collins and maybe, eventually, make an honest woman of seen-it-all-before Lil. Sniffing around is sleazebag pimp Tosher and a group of his gutsy prostitutes, as well as the fresh-faced and innocent Rosie, just trying to find her way in life.
Fings does feel very much of its time. It seems dated in perhaps the same way as The Pajama Game does – the audience is prepared to forgive this, deeming it to be part of its charm. Lines such as “Saville Row? Cod roe more like…” are brilliant.
So, the content may perhaps be a little faded around the edges but there is no doubting the very fine performances. Jesse Wallace, of course, shines as hard-pressed Lil and can certainly be relied upon to belt out an east-end tune. She seems utterly comfortable in the role and I’m sure Lionel Bart would have been very pleased with her indeed. Special mention to Suzie Chard, who, as prostitute Betty, almost fully reprises her role that I so enjoyed in Soho Cinders of a couple of years ago. Chard is a master of the pained expression; one grimace from her is enough to end any argument. Fine turns also from Mark Arden as Fred, Gary Kemp as PC Collins, Stefan Booth as Tosher and Sarah Middleton as the sparrow-like Rosie.
This is a boisterous and well-executed production, with a highly capable cast who are clearly having fun. The numbers are, by and large, funny, clever or interesting, and the choreography skips things along merrily, encasing this east London grit with a certain degree of razzmatazz. Yet Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be – and that may well include sentimental musical revivals.
Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be is playing at Theatre Royal Stratford East until 8 June. For more information and tickets, see the Theatre Royal Stratford East website.