Sparrows Can't Sing review, New York Times, 5/71963, 46:2
A wild and wacky frolic with some lusty characters is the only description for the chaos that occurs in "Sparrows Can't Sing," a cockney farce that came to Cinema I yesterday. It is set in London's East End, that cluttered area of the city that has been called Brooklyn-by-the-Thames.
Disorder reigns in this picture as if it were purposely enthroned amid the consideration with which Elizabeth II was crowned Queen. Disorder is in the behavior and the general attitude of the people involved toward life, and the disorder is in the story structure and in the way it is splashed onto the screen.
Joan Littlewood was the director. She's the Jack-of-all-trades noted for the fertile Theater Workshop, which she developed in the East End. From it she sent forth such items as "A Taste of Honey" and "The Hostage" of Brendan Behan.
The present conglomeration, first done by Miss Littlewood on her East End stage, smacks of the place of its origin and of Miss Littlewood's inexperience with film.
It charges into its low-class area, where old slums are being knocked down and glass-and-concrete hives are rising, as if it were spoiling for a brawl, and it flails away at a wisp of story with the untidiness of a drunken sailor in a free-for-all.
Indeed, the focal character is a sailor home from the s ea and looking about for the little woman and for the grubby neighborhood he left two years before. He flounders in brute irresolution, he flings money to the winds and he gurgles goodwill and vexation at not being able to find what he seeks. No wonder nobody wants to tell him that his little woman is living with Bert, a thick bus driver, in one of those concrete boxes and "fings eye'nt wot they used t'be" back here.
That's the Frankie-and Johnny situation. Stephen Lewis, original author of the play, and Miss Littlewood have barely managed to keep it more or less in the clear while theatrical chaos swirls around it and cinema techniques crash and bang all over. But out of it do emerge some raw chunks of straight Cockney comedy and farce, some bright bits of social observation and, too, a faint strain of pathos.
For there is something moderately amusing and mildly sad about this crude sailor, played by James Booth with a vast lot of gesturing and groping; he is so eager and yet so patient toward his pint-sized wife, whom Barbara Windsor plays with all the perkiness and eccentricity of a bounce English sparrow.
There is a nice hint of humorous folkways in the casualness with which the East End tribe treats a matter of domestic relations, how it adjusts--or doesn't adjust--to new things. There is fun in the gross and mad performing of Roy Kinnear, Murray Melvin and such as those.
However, this isn't a picture for anyone with a logical mind or an ear for the English language. The garble of Cockney spoken here is as incomprehensible as the reasoning of the characters who speak it--and that's profound.
As a restorative for the damage this picture does to the ear, the program also offers a very lovely 30- minute film, "A Tribute to Dylan Thomas," in which Richard Burton reads from the works of the Welsh poet while beautiful scenes of Wales are shown. A mood of nostalgia and sadness is spelled with images and words.