WELL, SWIPE ME DOWN THE OLD KENT ROAD, ME OLD CHINA…
Would you Adam and Eve it: the Joan Littlewood centenary restores to her sacred stage not only Oh What A Lovely War but this celebration of bygone lowlife: tarts, spivs, pimps and gamblers. We’re in a club beneath the Soho pavement – William Dudley’s set is brilliant, you can almost smell the stale beer and sweat. Our characters are living in 1959 but mourning for the good old days when a man could make a dishonest living in peace and pay off the cops.
Now poor Fred (a suitably battered Mark Arden), has emerged from jail to find the Palais is a bowling-alley and there are “Teds in drainpipe trousers and poofs in coffee-houses” . He has lost half his club to the barman at poker and fings simply aren’t the same. Even the slumming posh-boy Horace and his spangled deb girlfriend are depressed about it – “There used to be Noel..now it’s the dole” and the bent cop (Gary Kemp) is going straight because he gets tired of never entering a room without someone running out of it it. Usually that is Christopher Ryan as Red Hot the diminutive burglar, who steals every scene he is in. Only the oldest profession soldiers on undaunted, under the pimp Tosher (a Teddy-quiffed Stefan Booth, nicely nasty). Fred’s girlfriend Lil – a lovely solid performance with a real vaudeville voice from Jessie Wallace – has given it up but admits “My old lady’s still on the game. So’s my Nan, some afternoons”. But all the girls doughtily maintain the old whoop-de-doop cartoon standards of frill, paint and corsetry now defunct in the London Road age of sad junkies in bomber-jackets and trainers.
Lionel Bart’s musical – from a book by ex-con Frank Norman – was a pet project of Littlewood, seeking working-class liveliness to kick at the old order: “Guys and Dolls, but with its flies undone”. Tweaked by Elliott Davis with extra Bart songs thrown in, it is a lot of fun, at times deliberately shocking. As when Rosie the modest runaway (Sarah Middleton, very sweet) comes fresh from a plaintive number about why sparrers can’t sing to join Tosher’s tarts; sent out to a known bruiser, she comes back covered in blood.
There are plenty of funny touches, as you’d expect with Terry Johnson directing: when Herbert the gay designer tries to make the dive look “contemporary” there is not only a Magritte and a Picasso weeping-woman but a set of Keeler chairs: nicely prefiguring the Stephen Ward scandal of three years later as the cast quite casually straddle them. And I cherish Rosie’s exit line “”Going to Stevenage. They say it’s going to be lovely when it’s finished”.
That sense of era is well established, though occasionally it feels weird to be in 2014, in the same row as the real Barbara Windsor who played in the original, being nostalgic about 1959 people who themselves nostalgic for 1930. Bart’s songs – as ever – require and get a lot of quite raucous belting, but Davis and Johnson have paced it well, so that only a few numbers have that dated Bartian “I feel a song coming on” sense of stopping the action. All in all, the cheerful treatment of dead-end lives makes you suspect that in 2054 there will be a lovable musical yearning back to the Olympic London of knife gangs, half-million quid flats, Boris, oligarchs, Starbucks ,Farage….
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