The lovely fing about Lionel Bart musicals is you don’t need to be able to sing to get cast in one. Whether it’s ‘Oliver!’ or this cockney cracker from Joan Littlewood’s subversive Theatre Workshop in 1959, you just need to be willing to squawk like a crow. No disrespect to Jessie Wallace (Kat from ‘EastEnders’) or professional clothes horse Gary Kemp (Spandau Ballet), but don’t expect to see them at the Royal Opera House any time soon. Instead, this is a good old-fashioned knees-up that’s as satisfying as a plate of jellied eels.
Littlewood herself described the show as ‘“Guys & Dolls” with its flies undone’ and Terry Johnson’s cracking production is a gloriously irreverent celebration of caustic music hall with a ‘score’ bashed out on an upright piano and jazzed up with a bit of drum and guitar. And so we get the string of anyone-can-hum-’em tunes including the title song and the perhaps even better known ‘Living Doll’, which turns out to have been written not for a virginal Cliff Richard, but for a scarfaced jailbird (Mark Arden) serenading his hooker girlfriend (Wallace) in a seedy Soho speakeasy-cum-knocking shop.
Even better than the tunes there’s a terrific cast of characters beyond talon-sharp Wallace and hard-nut Arden. There’s a glorious turn from ‘Young Ones’ veteran Christopher Ryan who plays a pint-sized crook on the run whose toothless accent no one understands. As the bent cop taking backhanders from the villains, Kemp is Brylcream-smooth, but John Olohan as the Irish barman and card sharp with an accent thick as mashed potato keeps the tone low enough to trip over. Prostitutes of various sizes in sundry negligees decorate the stage and perform intermittent dance routines to make this the perfect antidote to the anodyne musical kitsch currently cleaning up in the West End.