Posts Tagged ‘theater Royal Stratford East’

Review – Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be – Theater Royal Stratford East

May 29, 2014

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.)

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Mini-review – Glasgow Girls – Theater Royal Stratford East

March 2, 2013

I’m late to the party but I wanted to get a quick review in for Glasgow Girls before it closes. I was tipped off to it by a very positive review in the Metro: given my cheerleading for Scotland and my personal interest in the experiences of (other) immigrants in the UK, I was very enthusiastic about the concept of a musical (?!) about some Glaswegian teenagers deciding to take on the Home Office when they decide to deport some refugees they’ve come to see as their own, their friends and neighbors. Sounded very uplifting: might it be cutesy, might it be too political? Or worse, might it be … boring?

I’m thrilled to say that this show hit exactly the right notes, neatly dodging the heavy-handedness typified by Earthquakes in London while actually managing to make a musical that beat both Top Hat and Singing in the Rain hands down as a singalonga good time. The show was quite honest both about the hostility of the residents of the tenements where the asylum seekers were moved into (as they went into the schools, the new arrivals raised both the average test scores and the results at the intermural football matches) and the general antipathy toward immigrants among many residents of the UK – one song dealt specifically with the beliefs people hold about them (i.e. “stealing jobs,” “they’re all working the system”). There was also some gritty reality about what life is like in Glasgow, starting with the first song’s comedy about the weather, but later on mentions of things like gang fights and lack of opportunity. And, thank goodness, there was an Irn Bru reference.

The show got right into the details of how the girls of one particular school could be motivated enough to organize a campaign to protect their friends from dawn raids, imprisonment, and being sent back to dangerous cities (deemed safe by UKBA), as well as the strange business of how devolution of Scotland is really working and the really hostile, Stalinistic way the UK government has handled peaceful families who have run afoul of its bureaucratic policies. And all of this was done with some fine, appropriately modern street-dance style numbers and great character development. I couldn’t believe I had actually managed to make it to that rare creature: a new musical that is both really awesome AND really political. I mean, crap, new plays have a hard time being political without becoming preachy; this musical had the manic attitude I associate with the British panto tradition. I really hope it made people angry while making them laugh; I could hardly ask for anything more, but I got it anyway: a genuinely good night out that well warranted my very late return home that night.

(This review is for a performance that took place on Friday, March 1st, 2013. It closes March 2nd.)