EastEnders' Kat Moon aka Jessie Wallace joins Gary Kemp in Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be at Theatre Royal Stratford East

East London and West Essex Guardian Series: Jessie Wallace in rehearsal for Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be (photo: Robert Day) Jessie Wallace in rehearsal for Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be (photo: Robert Day)

by Al Senter

In the memorable phrase coined by Joan Littlewood, its original director, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be is "Like Guys & Dolls, but with its flies undone", referring to Frank Loesser’s masterpiece of a musical based on Damon Runyon’s stories of old Broadway.

Fings, with a book by Frank Norman and music and lyrics by Lionel Bart, is set in a netherworld of Teddy Boys, spivs, prostitutes, jailbirds and bent coppers, and it takes us back to the late 1950s to a Soho of coffee bars and sleazy night-clubs.

The entertainer Max Bygraves must have boosted the show’s profile by recording a hit version of the title song, albeit with sanitised lyrics and Fings captures a moment in time when Theatre Royal Stratford East was the place to be with Oh What a Lovely War just around the corner and Lionel Bart about to let his Oliver! loose on an unsuspecting world.

All this theatrical history is meat and drink to Jessie Wallace, an EastEnder now working in E15 as Lil, the Alpha Female of Fings.

Jessie is of course much too young to have had first-hand experience of the Joan Littlewood regime but she is fascinated by Theatre Royal Stratford East’s past and by the traditions of populist drama which is part of its DNA.

"I’ve always loved Fings," reveals Jessie. "Members of my family saw it when it was first produced and it seems to me that I’ve grown up with its songs around me. Much of the music is similar to Bart’s score for Oliver! and to play Nancy would be a dream come true for me. It’s refreshing to do something else- something that I know so well- and to work at this theatre for the first time and to be directed by somebody of Terry Johnson’s stature, it doesn’t get much better than that."

How would Jessie describe Lil, the character she plays in Fings?
"She used to be on the game but now she runs a spieler, a kind of illegal gambling den, in Soho. She’s now in her late forties and to an extent I think that she’s trapped in the past; she certainly doesn’t approve of the way the younger prostitutes behave. She’s one of the lads, she’s feisty and smart- nobody can pull the wool over her eyes. And she’s devoted to Fred, her husband who, I think, is based on Frank Norman himself."

Although Jessie was born in Enfield and brought up in Essex, much of the language and the accents in the play are familiar to her.

"My grandmother spoke in that way – she had an old-fashioned East End accent and much of the language she used is in the play. It’s very Jewish and a lot of that language has slipped out of usage which makes it surprising that the show went down so well on Broadway, despite the strong accents. And much as I love American musicals, it would be great if our production, with Great British Music by Lionel Bart, could represent the home side in the West End."

Jessie describes the afore-mentioned Terry Johnson as "a genius" and thanks to him "I’m learning something new every day in rehearsal." She continues: "I’ve always loved being on stage, playing with the fourth wall and giving the audience an intimate experience. We’re adding numbers such as Livin’ Doll, which Cliff Richard recorded, to the Fings score and I hope there’ll be some audience participation. Perhaps we’ll sing Livin’ Doll to each other.

"When you’re working on the stage of the Theatre Royal Stratford East, it feels as if you’re performing in an old time music hall. I’ve played Marie Lloyd, the great star of the music hall, and I love all that stuff, it’s a passion of mine."

Jessie wonders how much of Frank Norman’s Soho has survived.
"I’m sure that there are corners of Soho and of the East End where life resembles what happens in Fings. My partner lives in Soho and what you can see from his window is better than anything you’ll watch on television. There is still a sense of community where people look out for each other and where the city never sleeps. At the same time, Soho is being cleaned up and a lot of the old, family businesses are being pushed out in favour of the chains."

Jessie is of course best known as Kat Moon nee Slater to the millions of EastEnders fans who have consistently awarded her a whole slew of trophies for her work in the soap. She reflects on the mixed blessings which television stardom can bring.

"If you’re going to play a character who comes into people’s homes four times a week, the loss of your anonymity is a price you have to pay," she argues. "When I first went into EastEnders, I had no idea what it entailed but nobody else can really prepare you for it. There are ups and downs to it but I’m not complaining. A successful actor is a working actor, after all."

Unusually Jessie had a lengthy prelude to her successful acting career, working backstage as a make-up artist and wig-maker, and she credits such actors as Iain Glen and David Tennant for encouraging her to realise her performing ambitions.

"I knew I had a passion for theatre," she recalls. "I just wasn’t sure where my heart was so I kind of went around the houses before realising that I wanted to act. I was warned not to do it by the same actress who would later present me with my first award. People pointed out that I had a good job and that I had security. Why did I want to take such a risk? I knew that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my life wondering what might have been. I finally decided that even if I fell on my arse, at least I had tried."

Most of her colleagues were very supportive, as Jessie remembers.

"I’d written my application form for drama school, which I showed to David {Tennant}. He then completely re-wrote it and so it is David’s words on the form. And when I was working in the West End on Martin Guerre, Hal Fowler found out which plays I’d be working on during the first term at the The Poor School and bought me a complete set of scripts."

Jessie considers that there is still something of a prejudice against actors who work in ‘continuing series’ which is the grand name for the genre that is more popularly known as a soap.

"Yet there are some great actors in these continuing series," she maintains. "It takes a particular technique to do it. You use your brain as a muscle and you learn lines very quickly. You have to be able to cope with last minute rewrites. Great writing comes naturally, which makes it easier to learn, and you are sometimes given the freedom to explore.

"One of the EastEnders producers compares acting in a continuing series to Hamlet, in that you could be playing the lead one minute and then holding a spear the next. Sometimes you have the lead story-line and then it passes to one of the other actors but you’re still expected to be there, even if you’re only filling in the background."

Returning to work in the theatre demands a certain shifting of gears, says Jessie."Nobody’s going to shout out Cut! On stage and yet even in rehearsal I’m still waiting for someone to call Action! Sometimes in EastEnders you’ll find you have given a great performance which you then can’t see when you watch it, because of the way the scenes have been shot and edited.

"But on stage you’re in control and the audience doesn’t need a director to tell it where to look at a particular moment. They can look where they like.

"I love Kat and I love playing her for she has so many layers which I want to explore. And it’s great to be part of a popular institution."

In the meantime, Jessie has her eye on a number of other demanding roles.
"I’d love to play Blanche in A Streetcar Named Desire- to show people what I can do.

"Since I am a massive fan of Georgia Brown, the actress who created the role of Nancy in the original production of Oliver! I’d love to play Nancy before I’m too old for the part.

"I love the music so much and I’m sure that I could go on even with my zimmer frame!"

 

Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be is at Theatre Royal Stratford East, Gerry Raffles Square,

Stratford, E15, from May 8 until June 8. 

Details: stratfordeast.com, 020 8534 0310

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