I missed my first chance to see Lionel Bart’s “other” musical, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, when Phil Wilmott gave it a revival in 2011. But at that time, I still hadn’t heard of this Cockney Guys and Dolls. It only came to my attention in 2012, when the BBC did its special on the British musical. Somehow, growing up in America, this was one musical that hadn’t been making the rounds. Like Taste of Honey, its deep roots in British society probably didn’t win the enthusiasm of American producers – rightly so as cuddly tykes and Dick Van Dyke chimneysweeps are how Americans enjoy imagining English working class types. Real rough trade isn’t quite so romantic, what with the organized crime scene of London lacking a Rat Pack to big it up. But Bart’s songcrafting skills are unquestioned, so I was eager to catch the Theater Royal Stratford East’s show – all the better for being in a culturally appropriate East End location.
The show is a bit thin on plot – a bunch of layabout lowlifes are in hanging around in a bar, playing poker and waiting to turn tricks, bemoaning their lives. Or so it seemed to me. We’ve got a cop on the take (introduced with a great number featuring sex workers paying him off), a pimp on the make (pulling in a new girl who’s recently become homeless), and an old mobster who hasn’t seen the riches he’s been hoping for materialize. The second half is sort of about what happens when he gets a windfall and decides to make the bar “classy” – with mixed results. Let’s say that restaurant management is not his forte.
I was able to really get behind the characters (Jessie Wallace as Lil, the (ex-)gangster’s moll, had a big enough personality to fill the entire house), and the dancing was fun, and who am I not to enjoy a good singalonga? But it all seemed less than the sum of its parts. While better than just a marker for the 50s theater scene in London (especially since it was being restaged in its birthplace), I found more poignancy standing on the first floor with a group of people whose accents matched, beat per beat, those I’d heard on stage a moment ago. We were looking out a picture window at a block of cement masquerading as homes and restaurants, and the woman was telling her friends about what you used to be able to see outside of this theater – streets and people and life being lived. The theater wasn’t just a building plopped in the middle of a renovation project, it was part of a neighborhood, which has now been utterly destroyed, leaving behind, well, little more than a script and a few songs and a memory that, well, fings used to be different. Perhaps it’s time for a new musical to be written, because a lot more has been lost since this play first took the stage, and, in the current iteration, this play, which is just entertainment, simply does not any way show us how very much we have lost.
(This review is for a performance that took place on May 16, 2014. It closes on June 8th.)