When I can travel in time, I will go to a lot of first nights of iconic shows. One of them will be in 1959 for the opening of Joan Littlewood’s original Theatre Workshop production of this show at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East.
I’ve been banging on about the lack of revivals of British musicals, particularly those of Lionel Bart and Howard Goodall, and now we get one of each in successive months. In truth, this one is a bit light on story but it’s got good songs and makes you nostalgic for a singalong in an old East End boozer.
Having never seen the show, I don’t know how much is this production (depiction of the Krays?) and how much is faithful to the original, but given the original was partly improvised, it seems fair game to change it. It certainly comes up fresh, though the cockney’s are all now more caricatures and stereotypes.
When it transferred to the West End, they didn’t comply entirely with censor Lord Chamberlain’s demands for cuts and after he visited (according to Frank Norman, on whose book it is based,) he asked for the following:
The interior decorator is not to be played as a homosexual
The labourer is not to carry the plank of wood in the erotic place and at the erotic angle that he does
Tosher is not to put his hand on Red Hot’s bottom with finger aligned as he does at the moment and not to push her backwards against the table when dancing in such a manner that her legs appear through his open legs in a manner indicative of copulation (this is a particular puzzle, as the programme for this production has Red Hot as a male character!)
Well, a lot changes in 50 years and Phil Wilmot’s production at the Union Theatre seems to be more faithful to the pre-censored edition than the post-censored edition. It’s actually rather racy, probably more than it was but maybe as they’d have liked at the time.
We’re in a brothel in Soho, whose owner Fred has just left prison to find things in his manor somewhat different. His long-suffering girlfriend Lil has been keeping things running, but the power balance has changed. There are working girls, lovable rogues, a hapless thief, a camp interior decorator, a toff and a few harmless coppers. Fred sells the ‘club’ to the retiring police inspector and his working girlfriend and finally marries Lil. The characters Fred and Lil owe a lot to Nathan and Adelaide in Guys and Dolls, as indeed does the show –well, in a seedier and tackier way.
The staging really is spot on with excellent choreography from Nick Winston and Oliver Townsend’s design makes great use of the Union Theatre space. Hannah-Jane Fox and Neil McCall are great as Fred and Lil, with excellent chemistry, and have superb support from Susie Chard & Ruth Alfie Adams as girls, Jo Parsons as Tosher & Robert Donald as Red Hot and Hadrian Delacey as the police inspector. I’m afraid Richard Foster-King over-acted mercilessly as interior decorator Horace (which a cast member’s uninhibited granddad pointed out loudly at the time!). The East End boozer feel was helped at the performance I attended by granddad’s companions – a large group of a cast member’s cockney family and friends who whooped, screeched, cheered and, well, sang along.
This is a rare and very welcome revival that comes out fresh and funny and another feather in the Union’s cap.
- Gareth James
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