When I heard that the Union Theatre were reviving Lionel Bart's "play with music" FINGS AIN'T WOT THEY USED T'BE I was cockahoop. I have been a fan of the original cast recording - recorded live - for some time but suspected that the show would not be revived as the lyrics certainly betray a certain dated quality. But I should have guessed that the Union, the home of the unlikely revival, would come through. Yes the show has dated in parts - and the production has a few distinct problem areas - but it won me round in the end. It certainly made me imagine how dynamic the original production would have been.
In 1959 Frank Norman submitted his first play to Joan Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at Stratford East. It's story of Soho heavies and prostitutes - drawn from a milieu that ex-con Norman knew all too well - was too bald for Littlewood and she hit on the inspired idea of suggesting they show the script to Lionel Bart, a successful pop song writer who had recently written the lyrics for his first musical LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS to turn it into a play with music. The result was a huge success and the show transferred to the Garrick where it ran for 886 performances and won the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical.
The original cast - captured 'live' on the album - was one you would now kill to see: Glynn Edwards as Fred Cochran, the crook who owns a gambling club/brothel, Mariam Karlin as Lily, his long-suffering girlfriend who runs his decrepit knocking shop, James Booth as Tosher, Fred's second-in-command who pimps his two brasses Rosey and Betty, played by Barbara Windsor and Toni Palmer, Wallis Eaton as the camp interior decorator Horace, Tom Chatto as the bent local Police Inspector and, among the supporting cast, a young Yootha Joyce.
Phil Willmott's dimly-lit production did itself no favours by starting off with the cast bellowing out the numbers at the top of the volume which was ridiculous in such a confined space - I have rarely heard such an overbearingly loud noise - even the most experienced of them, Neil McCaul as Fred, barked out his lines and songs like he was on the Palladium stage.
People.... read, your, space.
The entrances and exits were at times a bit haphazard and the whole thing seemed to need a firmer hand controlling it as it's quite a large cast of characters and at times it was hard to get an idea of who one was supposed to be concentrating on.
Also I want to single out Richard Foster-King who played Horace, the camp interior designer. I have never seen such an over-emphasised, ugly, performance. His horribly over-the-top delivery totally ruined Bart's charming "Contempery" - imagine if you will the bastard offspring of Larry Grayson, Julian Glover and Frances de la Tour. Only camper. His screaming and lisping made me seriously consider leaving at the interval.That's him at the back of the picture being strangled by McCaul. If only... But despite this hideous performance and over-pitched delivery, slowly the show began to settle down and I found myself enjoying the show as much as I had hoped to.
Hannah-Jane Fox who it appears is a West End leading lady thanks to four years in WE WILL ROCK YOU played Lil with a gentle restraint - but all it took was a short reprise of "The Ceiling's Comin' Dahn" by Ruth Alfie Adams' weary-but-rough tart to show how great she would have been in the role. I did however like her performance of "Where Do Little Birds Go?" that stopped the show for Barbara Windsor.
The show was stolen by the partnership of Hadrian Delacey's crooked Inspector Collins and Suzie Chard's dizzyingly voluptuous tart Barbara - imagine a talented Jodie Prenger. Their tough-but-tender relationship was fully believable and they performed "Cop A Bit o'Pride" with a real élan.
I also liked Ian Rixon as Fred's 'gopher' Billy who nabbed all the funny lines going and Jo Parsons also made an impression as Tosher, a young cocky wide-boy quietly nursing his ambition for all that Fred has. The trouble with Norman's script is that the characters all have a moment to step up but the storylines are all left hanging as he cuts to a quick denouement to wrap up the Fred/Lily story - a storyline that seemed to be a cockney reflection of GUYS AND DOLLS' Nathan and Miss Adelaide.
A special mention must go to Nick Winston's choreography which makes the most of the wide but shallow stage although it was only a matter of time during Suzie Chard's raucous number "Big Time" that one of the jitterbugging couples would send one of the front row pub tables go a-clattering!
So despite the quibbles - and shiteous performance by Foster-King - I am glad I finally got a chance to see this show with it's delightful score and see a few performers that I will keep an eye open for in the future. It certainly helps to put Bart in perspective - it's frustrating that OLIVER! seems to be the only one of his shows that get's revived.
Maybe the Union Theatre would like to have a go at his Liverpool musical MAGGIE MAY which starred first Rachel Roberts then Georgia Brown during it's run at the Adelphi in 1964.