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Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be

Milo Wakelin goes up the apples and pears to review the cockney musical.

Southwark’s Union Theatre has recreated a little bit of Soho south of the river with a new production of Lionel Bart’s cheeky cockney musical, Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be. This was the show that launched Barbara Windsor’s career back in 1960, which, depending on how you see these things, should have either landed Bart a knighthood or a spell infront of the International Criminal Court.

Set in the late 1960s, Fred Cochran (Neil McCaul), a down-on-his luck gangster, leaves prison only to find that corrupt cops and rival gangs are moving in on his dilapidated gambling den, run in his absence by his long suffering girlfriend, tart-with-a-heart Lil Smith (Hannah-Jane Fox). Worst of all, Soho has been transformed beyond recognition, with coffee shops, rock n’ roll and cappuccino-sipping poofs (ie, it’s all our fault). But when a racetrack win transforms his fortunes, Fred hires a camp-as-tits interior decorator (Richard Foster-King) in a last-ditch attempt to get with the times.

With an intimate venue, 20-strong cast, liberal use of rhyming slang and polari, and energetic dance numbers boasting chorus lines of hookers, spivs and crooks, you’ll feel like you’re entering a good old-fashioned pub - only without the risk of having your wallet stolen or your lifestyle choice judged by an inebriated indigent. The songs are cheerful and catchy, if not always consequential (think Oliver! minus the Dickens), and the slim story is far less than the sum of its parts.

But this show was always more about large-than-life characters than plot. Booming and barrel-chested, McCaul is a charismatic lead, but each character gets their moment in the spotlight, from Suzi Chard's impossibly stacked courtesan, to Foster-King's outrageous poof, whose angular mannerisms and shrill delivery will either have you shrieking with glee or grasping for the smelling salts.

Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be is a frothy pint of nostalgia, but it's a credit to Bart's writing and Phil Willmott's direction that it still feels engaging after all these years.

4/5
Until 4 June, Union Theatre, Union Street, Southwark, London.
Details and tickets at this website.

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