Monday, 2 June 2014

'Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be' at Stratford East

Last week I headed east to Stratford, the site of the Olympic Stadium and the Theatre Royal Stratford East, to see the revival of 'Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be'. 'Fings' is another Joan Littlewood creation and, along with 'Oh What A Lovely War' that I saw a few months back, was created by Joan's company in that theatre. Both help celebrate her 100th anniversary and there's a lovely quote from her about 'Fings' on one of the posters, that it's 'like Guys & Dolls but with its flies undone'.

I saw a previous revival of the show at the Union Theatre three years ago and, to my surprise really liked it. It was also nice to see Suzie Chard again, playing the same role in both productions of head tart with a heart who ends up going straight along with the copper. The Union Theatre is teeny compared to Stratford so this production had the scope to do far more with the show and it did.

It's the end of the '50s in deepest, darkest Soho with dining establishments, illegal gambling, ladies of the night with their pimp, bent coppers and gangsters down on their luck. The cockerney-speak is laid on thick with underworld lingo and some polari thrown in for good measure by the gay interior decorator.

It takes place over two days and one night, opening in the dour and out of date drinking joint that doubles as a brothel with people bemoaning the good old days and then the gangster wins on the horses, upgrades his establishment and comes into conflict with Meatface, a bitter rival we never see. Over-night there's a turf war with much blood spilt off-stage and when our hero returns he ends up getting married to his lover and partner in crime of 20 years. Yes, happy endings really do happen.

Jessie Wallace played Lil opposite Mark Arden's gangster Fred, with Gary Kemp as the bent cop taking his fee and Suzie Chard as lead 'brass', Betty. It was great casting in the four main roles and they bounced off each other nicely as the plot thickened. It was nice to see Jessie do something on the stage rather than the interminable 'Eastenders' and Gary Kemp was great fun as the bent copper, always in movement and in good voice. Suzie Chard really ought to be offered more roles - and not just of the buxom variety. Christopher Ryan was also good fun as the habitual criminal but he is always fixed in my minds as one of 'The Young Ones'.

The set and costumes were great and I liked the use of video on the 'ceiling' to show people walking over the glass roof of the club and, later, blood splattering it during the knife fight between Fred and Meatface. It was also a nice surprise for confetti to rain down at the wedding at the end. It's often the little touches that mean the most.

It would be good news for this production to transfer to the West End  but there doesn't seem to be any signs of that, which is a shame. So go and see it while you can at Stratford - you can even buy a reproduction copy of the original 1959 programme!

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