This year marks the centinery of visionary theatre director Joan Littlewood's birth and Theatre Royal Stratford East are celebrating by staging revivals of two of her iconic shows, both directed by Terry Johnson. A few months ago I saw the affecting but slightly under-powered OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR but now he is on surer ground with a punchy and rollicking production of Lionel Bart and Frank Norman's FINGS AIN'T WOT THEY USED T'BE. As with OH WHAT A LOVELY WAR it was so exciting to see these on the stage where they were created by Littlewood.
In 1958 Frank Norman submitted his first play to Littlewood's Theatre Workshop at Stratford East. She thought his story of Soho crooks and prostitutes - drawn from a milieu that ex-con Norman knew all too well - would be more effective with songs from a previous collaborator Lionel Bart, mainly known as a pop song writer, who had recently written the score for his first musical LOCK UP YOUR DAUGHTERS. The show was a huge success, transferring to the Garrick where it ran for 886 performances and won the Evening Standard Award for Best Musical. By the way, the choreographer for the production was Jean Newlove, pregnant at the time with her daughter Kirsty MacColl.
The West End cast - recorded 'live' on the album - was one I would now kill to see: Glynn Edwards as Fred Cochran, the crook who owns a gambling club/brothel, Miriam Karlin as Lil, his long-suffering lover who runs his decrepit knocking shop, James Booth as Tosher, Fred's second-in-command who pimps the brasses Rosie 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. That album is so packed with larger-than-life vocal performances that it's hard for any revival to match it but Johnson has given us a production which leaps off the stage with full-on attack and neon-lit characterisations.
I had seen the show when it was revived in 2011 by the Union Theatre and while that production was compromised by bad design and a shocking supporting performance - see here for that blog review - it's nice to see two of the better performers appearing here, Ruth Alfie Adams and the unstoppable Suzie Chard.
Norman's book has been revised by Bart afficianado Elliot Davis so it was a bit jolting for songs to pop up out of their usual context and sung by different characters. The score has been filled out with three of Bart's early hits - WOULD YOU MIND?, LIVING DOLL and SPARRERS CAN'T SING - which are nice to hear but do stand out from the score's particular sound but I must admit that even Davis has not managed to fix the plot's odd climax which seems to stop too soon and then take a long time about it. Davis is also the musical director of the onstage band.
A big plus is William Dudley's evocative basement spieler and costumes as well as a clever use of video footage to suggest the Soho world above. The show was enlivened by Nathan M. Wright's inventive choreography, a constant delight. But what raised the roof and rattled the rafters were the vibrant performances.
Jessie Wallace, while essentially playing a variation of her "Eastenders" character Kat, gave a full-on performance as Lil, her weariness at her unfulfilled life with Fred very palpable and she belted Lil's great songs with real brio. Mark Arden played Fred with a real menace although his 'dead 'ard' accent was a bit overdone. One of the surprises was Gary Kemp who played the bent copper PC Collins with a welcome light touch and sang his big number COP A BIT OF PRIDE well.
He had the added pleasure of sharing his number with the fabulous Suzie Chard who brought big hair, big personality, big boobs and more importantly a big voice to the role of Betty the tart with a heart of pure brass. She belted over her number BIG TIME with the attack of the late and great Georgia Brown and it was lovely to see her again. Oddly enough although she played the same character at the Union Theatre, there she was named Barbara!
A real standout was Sarah Middleton as Rosie, the young runaway who Tosher recuits as the latest addition to his stable. She had a nice presence on stage and her performance of Rosie's big song WHERE DO LITTLE BIRDS GO TO? was wonderful. Christopher Ryan also made a big impression as the eternal jailbird Red Hot, always on the cadge and with knocked-off goods to sell. The supporting cast also featured fine work by Will Barton and Vivien Carter as the posh couple who arrive at the spieler.
But these can be overlooked easily as the show was so hugely enjoyable, it would be great if it had a continued life after it's scheduled run. It deserves a West End run just like it's original incarnation to enliven the current London theatre musical scene.
Well done Startford East on the genius stroke to reprint the original 1959 programme! Who knew that the very first production featured A TASTE OF HONEY writer Shelagh Delaney playing a young "mystery" and that none other than Richard Harris played the crooked copper Collins? I wonder whatever happened to Mrs Parham who sold drinks in the long bar, Mrs. Murphy who sold teas in the snack bar and Miss Darvill who ran the box office?
After seeing FINGS, again I find myself wondering when will we see a revival of Lionel Bart's Liverpool musical MAGGIE MAY which played at the Adelphi in 1964, first with Rachel Roberts then Georgia Brown in the title role and a young Julia McKenzie in the chorus.