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The Theatreguide.London Review

Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be
Union Theatre   Spring 2011

The time: the late 50s. The scene: central London. Fred is a Cockney bruiser just out from jail and hell-bent on restoring the fortunes of his Soho gambling den/whorehouse.

Helped by his not always willing girl Lil, a gaggle of street girls and unreliable lieutenants, he faces the competition that includes rival gangsters and a bent copper. Despite advancing years and the modern world out there hammering on his door, he might just pull it off...

A sort of reality-show Guys and Dolls, renowned as the musical Lionel Bart wrote just before Oliver!, Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be first arrived in 1959 at Joan Littlewood's groundbreaking Theatre Workshop as a straight play by Frank Norman.

Almost immediately, Bart was brought in to add songs that ultimately fused with the text to create a remarkable sung-through musical filled with dark comedy and socio-political undertones.

First staged in the East End, the natural setting for the show's characters, it went on to be a hit on the West End and has been revived sporadically since.

Now director Phil Willmott and arranger Elliot Davis have joined forces for a restaging that boldly puts onstage 21 multi-tasking performers, including Musical Director Barney Ashworth, without wasting an ounce of their talents (with the singular exception of overplayed Cockney accents that frequently muffle the dialogue).

As gangsteršs moll and brothel mistress Lil, Hannah-Jane Fox delivers a stand-out performance of razor-sharp one-liners and incisive numbers such as the bitter-sweet The Ceilinšs Comin Dahn.

As her other half Fred, Neil McCaul is less successful - though he looks the part he finds neither his sinister nor his comic side.

Around them the cameos come fast and furious, notably Ruth Alfie Adams' short but sweet lament as whore Betty longs for another life, Richard Foster-King's OTT interior designer Horace, and Hadrian Delacey's crooked yet compellingly sympathetic Inspector Collins.

Big numbers include the title song, a hit song in its own right, and the deliciously madcap Contempery.

If viewed as a period piece of social commentary of the time and our showbiz heritage, then this is a rewarding living experience of a vibrant period of British theatre-making, peppered as it is with rhyming slang, thieves' cant and the theatre/gay slang Polari.

If allowed to stand on its own two feet as a production with relevance to today, it remains a success - if only for the energy and focus of the cast - but over-reverence for the material misses crucial chances to update the action and, as a result, the show does not let itself fly in the audience's direction as it should.

Either way, life would be probably be the poorer for not popping down to Southwark and experiencing Fred, Lil and Co in full-blown action.

Nick Awde

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Review -  Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be - Union Theatre 2011


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