As I made my way into the Theatre Royal Stratford East on Saturday, a quote on one of the posters caught my eye, described Fings Aint Wot They Used T’be as: ‘like Guys & Dolls… with its flies undone’, and I genuinely can’t think of a description more apt and endearing.
The action is set in 1950’s London, an era of spivs, prostitutes, teddy boys and corrupt policemen. Central to the story is Fred, a rogue determined to make a comeback after getting out of prison to find that he isn’t the king of the manor he once was. At his side is his long suffering girlfriend Lil, who dreams of a different life, and the pair are joined by a wonderfully eclectic cast of characters including ‘Student Ponce’ Tosher and his girls, the sweet and naïve Rosie, the classic ‘tart with a heart’ Betty, and a fabulously camp interior designer named Horace. Written by Frank Norman with music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, what followed as we took our seats was a joy of an evening with plenty of laughs, and more Cockney slang than you can shake a stick at.
Before I single a few of my favourite performances out, I’d like to say that the entire cast are brilliant and performed with such energy and enthusiasm that while the story is a bit of a slow burner, I was never bored. There’s something really special about being in a smaller theatre and hearing everybody in hysterical laughter, it really packs a punch! This began from almost the outset, when the prostitutes made their way through the audience with their opening number G’night Dearie and quite literally threw themselves at various unsuspecting male audience members, amid raucous laughter, and didn’t stop for the entire evening! Special mention on this score must go to Christopher Ryan as ‘Red Hot’, whose overcoat and ‘Brass Monkey Weather!’ among a load of other funny moments provided me no end of giggles.
Jessie Wallace was a real pleasant surprise for me as Lil. I’m not an avid Eastenders viewer, but I’m aware of her talent as an actress, so I was more intrigued to hear her sing, and thought she did a lovely job, with great warmth and wit. I felt her and Mark Arden (Fred) balanced each other out really well and were great fun to watch with their banter. Jessie’s numbers The Ceiling’s Comin’ Down and her lead in Layin’ Abaht were particular highlights.
To mention two other ladies before I move on to my favourites among the men, I thought Suzy Chard did a wonderful job as Betty. Her character reminded me a lot of Nancy in Oliver! (which was incidentally written a year later by Bart), but she’s bolshier and funnier, which I loved. My attention was drawn to her whenever she was onstage, especially during If I Say I Love You, Do You Mind?, where all Tosher’s prostitutes are showing Rosie the ropes. Speaking of Rosie, I thought Sarah Middleton was wonderfully sweet and endearing in the role and I hope I get the chance to see her again in the future. Her voice is lovely and pure, I found it a pleasure to hear her sing. I wasn’t familiar with the show at all before booking, but wasn’t expecting a song as simple and beautiful as Where Do Little Birds Go?, given the premise and setting… was a lovely surprise! Sarah also had some great moments with Stefan Booth’s Tosher; I was left longing that their relationship was a bit more developed, as I was with their characters individually, but the charm of the shows writing isn’t in the character development, it’s in the comedy!
And boy oh boy did we get comedy with Ryan Molloy’s Horace. I confess that wanting to see Ryan was my main reason for going to see Fings, having missed him twice last year in Jersey Boys. Though his appearances were sparce, in my mind he completely stole the show, at times with little more than his costumes 😉 Of course I knew to expect something totally different from his previous role, but what I wasn’t expecting was for him to carry off such a fabulously camp and flamboyant character with such aplomb. He looked like he was having a blast, and I know I did watching him! It meant so much to me to watch him finally, and I’m hoping and praying that Saturday marked the first of more opportunities. Same goes for Stefan Booth as Tosher, I loved his voice and had serious quiff envy going on!
What Fings taught me was that I should make more of an effort to see Off West End shows. I had an absolute blast and loved being able to sit so close to the action for a change! I also learned that even though I have only met him the once thus far, Ryan seemingly already has the ability to make me smile & blush like a crazy girl just by saying ‘Hey baby!’ and winking at me with his lovely smile, so I need to try and not babble away at him and make a bit more sense next time! Stefan is also a complete gent, and I can’t thank them both enough for their time and patience. I left the theatre humming the tunes with a massive smile on my face!