Fings Aint What They Used T’Be
Theatre Royal, Stratford
21 May 2014
Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be, Lionel Bart (Music and Lyrics) and Frank Norman (Book), now being revived in the place where it was born, Theatre Royal Stratford East, in a new production directed by Terry Johnson, presents the regular British theatre going public with a number of troubling, some disturbing, puzzles.
What is Ryan Molloy doing wasting his time in this? Jessie Wallace – WTF? Surely Bart didn't write that song for this? Why would you revive this – you wouldn't see anything like this at the National? Where is the proper chorus line? Can you use that language on stage? What did I just sit through?
It is important to think these difficult questions through properly.
First, Ryan Molloy. Famous for his turn as Frankie Valli in the phenomenally successful Jersey Boys, Molloy spends much of the first Act of the show doing very little, being an ensemble member, singing and dancing with everyone else – just one of the motley crew of faux villains who hang out at Fred's bar and engage in petty crime and villainous chicanery, as well as a spot of whoring.
Molloy is excellent at all of this. No question. But why would he bother?
Because part way through Act One he gets to make an entrance as Horace, the happy interior decorator Fred calls on to update the look of his bar. Horace is a dream role: flashy, dynamic, a fabulous show-stopping number, Contempery, outrageous campery and a frock in Act Two. Molloy is a wonderful Horace in every way – stylish, effervescent, great dancer, wonderful singer, perfect diction and he makes no mistakes with the comic timing. This is proper character acting in a musical and Molloy displays talents with a depth and breadth unusual for a leading man. It’s a bravura performance in every way.
Jessie Wallace is well known as Kat Slater from Eastenders and while there are some superficial similarities between that character and Lil here the most startling thing is that, really, Lil is a completely different performance. The harshness, the incessant movement, the snarling, the simmering belligerence of Kat are all gone – Lil is tough but kind, fair and a romantic at heart. In her silences, Wallace shines – and she is no slacker when it comes to singing and dancing either. Both Do You Mind and Polka Dots are delicious in her hands and she provides the title song with real gusto and diva style.
She is absolutely wonderful in every way. It is staggering to see someone who can be hit or miss as Kat so pitch-perfect in every way. Often she makes you think of Barbara Windsor, which, frankly, is ideal.
The production team here have interpolated into the revised book some songs which Bart wrote but which were not in the original show. Do You Mind and Living Doll, both Pop hits in their time, easily take their place in this score and while some might be surprised that Bart wrote those tunes, the fact is he did and they suit the style of this show perfectly. Where Do Little Birds Go? and Big Time are among the other additions and they too work well, enhancing character and empathy. The augmented score makes for a delicious musical treat.
Under Hands’ astute and deft direction, and with the extra work on the Book from Elliot Davis, the piece proves to be that unusual beast: a revival, a period piece and an allegory about issues still troubling society: the distance between classes, the lure of crime, the appalling way men treat women, the true meaning of friendship, identifying real good and real evil. Reworked, augmented and refashioned this 1959 musical has much to offer modern Britain: a glimpse of its past, present and future – all at once.
This production demonstrates how important Bart’s contribution to British musical theatre was and is. It holds a spotlight up to the inadequacies of the approach of the National Theatre. Bart’s output. is important to the repertoire: it should be showcased with the full resources of the National Theatre. It is just as important as Hare, Bennett, O’Casey, Stoppard or any number of writers of drama; in some ways, more so, because Bart always reflected the lives of ordinary people.
One of the best things about this production is that it abhors conventional wisdom and false certainties about musical theatre. There is no “glamour” chorus line here, male or female. Instead, there are very very good, very very sexy women of all shapes and sizes (from the sizzling svelte form of Vivien Carter to the voluptuous and marvellously ample Suzie Chard – whose magnificent breasts seem to defy Einstein’s theories about gravity) who imbue every moment with sensual joy, lethargic bliss and wry, desultory and faded expectation. Each is a triple threat. They are beyond wonderful.
So is the delightful Sarah Middleton who plays Rosie, the ingénue who stumbles into Tosher's world, suffers for him and then has her moment in the sun. She is frail and gentle; silk shimmering over steel.
Another excellent thing here is that the language of the piece is kept very firmly in 1959. All the colour, sparkle, outrage and charm of the then language of the East End is intact, unmolested by the troublesome tentacles of political correctness. Where else would you hear a song called The Student Ponce? The richness this language brings to the whole show is immeasurably satisfying.
And it is not just the spoken language which is rich. William Dudley’s sets and costumes beautifully establish the period, the class and the style of the piece. It’s a happy marriage of text and creative vision. Ben Omerod lights everything wonderfully and there is clever use of huge video screens to add atmosphere and increase mood, whether tense or happy.
But the icing on the cake, the unexpected thrill, the truest dose of divine fire comes with Nathan M Wright’s muscular, sexy, charming and utterly beguiling choreography. It is rare indeed that dance steps contribute to the understanding of character – but that is precisely what happens here. The audience learns more about Wallace’s Lil in the way she performs the dance steps than in any number of scenes. It is the same with Molloy’s Horace and Stefan Booth’s ripe and unexpected Tosher. Indeed, with the entire cast. Throughout, Gary Watson and Stevie Hutchinson do terrific footwork, all of which is technically impressive and wonderful background detail.
Wright’s cleverest work comes in his treatment of Where It's Hot which gives Christopher Ryan, who is in splendid comic form throughout, a chance to steal the stage as Red Hot. But the big numbers are just as impressive and although the stage is small, the routines never seem cluttered or confined: they sparkle ceaselessly.
It’s true that Gary Kemp and Mark Arden are not as amazing as some of the rest of the cast, but it scarcely matters. With so many delicious comic turns – Carter and Will Barton’s Myrtle and Percy is simply inspired – the slight underplaying from the two male leads barely registers.
Hands has produced a wonderful, joyful and quite triumphant revival of a piece that is often overlooked and discarded as “old-fashioned”. The life, beauty and pure pleasure that pulses from the stage deserves a long, long run.
If only more Fings were like this; like they used t’be.