Robert Tanitch review Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T‘Be at Theatre Royal, Stratford East, London E15
They certainly ain’t. I sat there, thinking this isn’t the show I remember. The cockney underworld musical has been reworked by Elliot Davis and now includes songs from Lionel Bart’s back catalogue, including Sparrers Can’t Sing, Do You Mind? and Living Doll.
Fings Ain’t Wot It Used T’Be began its life at Stratford East, in 1959. It transferred to the West End in 1960 and ran at Garrick Theatre for 897 performances. It was a characteristic Joan Littlewood production and her name was in enormous letters outside the theatre.
The musical was staged in her usual Theatre Workshop slice-of-life manner. Barbara Windsor and James Booth had a big success in it.
The play, very thin, was by ex-convict Frank Norman and set it in a grubby Soho gambling club in the late 1950’s. The characters were ex-convicts, crooked policeman, tarts, pimps, ponces, lags, teddy boys, layabouts, and the language they spoke was street language. West End audiences lapped it up.
It was Littlewood who brought Lionel Bart on board to write some songs to bolster the script. This was long before he wrote Oliver! and became famous. The cockney songs included Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, Layin’ Abaht and The Ceiling’s Falling Dahn. Max Bygraves would go on to record a bowdlerized version of the title song.
Littlewood wittily said Fings was like Guys and Dolls but with its flies open; fun though it was in 1960, it was never in that league. Two performances stand out in Terry Johnson’s revival: Suzie Chard as a robust prostitute with a brick in her handbag and Christopher Ryan as a diminutive crook with a stammer and a coat down to his shoes. Asked to be a witness at a wedding, he declares he has never admitted to witnessing anything in his life.