BWW Reviews: FINGS AIN'T WOT THEY USED T' BE, Union Theatre, May 13 2011
Perhaps the mark of genius is the ability to do one of two things - very complex stuff using very complex stuff or very simple stuff using very simple stuff. Lionel Bart's extraordinary burst of creativity at the end of the 1950s was of the second kind, but loses nothing in comparison to near contemporary Leonard Bernstein's, which was of the first kind. A year before Oliver! was first staged and his tunes glorious tunes became immortal, Bart wrote Fings - a celebration of a London, and an England, that was about to cast off the greyness of the 1950s and embrace the technicolour, consumerist, swinging Sixties.
After doing porridge, Fred, the former "razor king of the manor" returns to his bar-cum-brothel to find things almost exactly as they were: the bent coppers; the hookers; the old lags fencing ill-gotten goods; and girlfriend Lil, still on her knees scrubbing floors and turning tricks. When a tip comes in, Fred uses the money to go "contempery", doing the old gaffe up with Pollockesque paintings and frothy coffee. His ambition soon catches the eye of the new razor king of the manor, Meatface, and sets Inspector Collins thinking too. Things would never be the same again - for fings ain't wot they used t'be.
Performed under the railway arches in a space seldom left unfilled, the claustrophobia felt by Lil and the working girls who long for an ordinary married life in a bungalow, is almost palpable. So too is the poverty of opportunities in the outside world, the force that drives more "little birds" into a life of streetwalking, despite Lil's warnings. But, as is now compulsory in any drama set amongst the salt-of-the-earth Rons, Regs and Violets of London's post-war Eastenders, they're happy because they have each other.
The cast have enormous fun, dancing, singing and fighting with plenty of set-pieces to go round the ensemble. Hannah-Jane Fox as Lil is all tart-with-a-heart folk wisdom and Neil McCall as Fred growls out the Cockney slang through lips scarred by past carve-ups. And the slang comes thick and fast, with even a bit of polari thrown in by Richard Foster-King, whose turn as Horace, the spectacularly camp interior decorator, is worth the admission alone.
The affection for the work (as evidenced by Elliot Davis' wonderful introductory essay in the programme) runs through production and why not? The message that leaving a past behind can be painful, but the right thing to do, told through a perfect marriage of simple melodies and vernacular speech, by a cast bubbling with energy, provides an evening of feelgood fun as fresh now as it was half a century ago.
Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'be is at the Union Theatre until 4 June