Review by Peter Brown
13 May 2011
Back to 1959 with a revival of a musical play which had mixed reviews when it first opened, but nevertheless went on to win the Evening Standard best musical award for 1960. The play was written by Frank Norman, but Lionel Bart – best known now for the musical 'Oliver!' - was asked to write the songs.
When this show was originally produced, some reviewers found the story thin, and it certainly hasn't put much dramatic weight on in the past 50 years. The setting is Soho, in central London, where gangsters rule supreme, aided and abetted by bent police officers who turn a blind eye to the activities of the criminals, for a price of course. Fred Cochran has a gambling den and whorehouse in Soho which he operates with long-time and long-suffering girlfriend, Lil. Fred is a frequent long-term visitor to Her Majesty's Prisons, and is not only getting long in the tooth for a life of crime, but is also being squeezed by other gangsters, the police and a society which is already gearing-up for the long-awaited liberality of the 1960s. Though Fred might be down, he's certainly not out - yet. And when he wins a wad of cash on the horses, he decides to give his establishment a more modern image and employs an interior designer to carry out the job. But refreshing the décor doesn't stop the threats to Fred's position and livelihood.
This new production seems to have a cast of thousands, who only just manage to squeeze into the small space at the Union Theatre. And there's an odd assortment of characters. Apart from gangster Fred, his henchmen, the prostitutes and the bent coppers, we meet an extraordinarily camp interior designer called Horace, a couple of toffs who are down on their uppers, and even the infamous Kray twins make an appearance. As we now know, aristocrats, criminals, artists and the police weren't such strange bedfellows at the time. Though the fact might have amazed theatre-goers in the late 1950s, it's not exactly news today, and that means the weaknesses of the storyline are even more evident.
The title song is unmistakably Lionel Bart and you'd almost need to have the memory of a rock not to go away humming it. But then we do hear it repeatedly during the show, so it's more or less riveted into our collective subconscious. The other songs are less hummable and infectious, but they are good enough to carry the show along.
Richard Foster-King steals the show as the gangly, polari-speaking interior designer who gives Fred's joint a fantabluosa makeover. Mr Foster-King certainly brings the audience to life with a visually raucous performance that is quite mesmerising. Neil McCaul is well-cast as the abrasive and intimidating Fred, sporting numerous facial scars to prove his criminal credentials. Hannah-Jane Fox is Fred's long-suffering, homely girlfriend who one can't help feeling would be well-advised to find love elsewhere. And Hadrian Delacey 'fits the bill' nicely as the corrupt police inspector with an eye on Fred's business.
Even with a production that remains faithful to the period and doesn't skimp on either cast or production values, 'Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be' still feels dated and somewhat naive. Though it's interesting from a historical perspective, times have changed so, like the central character, one feels this musical would be better off moving gracefully into permanent retirement.