They sing the overture at Fings, this splendid revival of Lionel Bart’s first musical – not seen since a Queen’s Theatre, Hornchurch, “local” version in the year of Bart’s death, 1999: “They’ve changed our local Palais into a bowling alley, and fings ain’t wot they used t’be…It used to be fun, Dad and old Mum, paddlin’ dahn Southend…”
The 1959 show, as devised by Joan Littlewood, written by old lag Frank Norman, with songs by Bart, was a celebration of an idealised East End and Soho bohemian lifestyle at the end of the 1950s, as knocking shops and coffee shops teemed with ponces, doxies, molls, spivs, gamblers and bent coppers: even the Kray Brothers make a prophetic appearance.
The skimpy libretto, which nonetheless reflects a world Littlewood knew very well, is disguised by director Phil Willmott as a “street scene”; he creates an irresistible, organic party atmosphere, with girls parading with Brechtian, misspelt placards, as if at a boxing match, and a chorus of amply proportioned prostitutes and skinny criminals revelling in both the exaggerated Cockney back chat and the glorious melodic prodigality of Bart’s music.
Fred (strongly played by Neil McCall) comes out of prison, deals with a takeover bid on his local manor, “does up” the gaff , makes a new start in a greengrocery and an honest woman of his long-suffering girlfriend, Lil (utterly delightful Hannah-Jane Fox), and leads a company reiteration of how things are changing: “Monkeys flying round the moon, we’ll be up there with them soon…”
One diabolical liberty, as they’d say down Mile End way, is taken by giving the famous Barbara Windsor song, “Where Do Little Birds Go?” to Lil (Babs was a minor character when she sang it), and perhaps camp beanpole Richard Foster-King aims a little too outrageously to combine elements of both Kenneth Williams and Hugh Paddick in screaming queen Round the Horne mode.
The score was always one or two numbers short of a full house. But there’s nothing but delight spreading from the horizontal sensuality of “Layin’ Abaht,” the music hall bounce and cheek of “The Ceiling’s Comin’ Dahn” or the hilarious interior decorating numbers, “Contempery” and “Polka Dots” led by Foster-King.
Nick Winston’s choreography is a treat, all the cast manage to find some vivacious detail or other in their characterisations, and Barney Ashworth’s fine musical direction tellingly elaborates the usual Union keyboard with double bass and even a few hoots on saxophone.