Sparrows Can’t Sing chirps Cockney rhyming slangs without an unflappable story. “‘E didn’t say, “Dear, you’re divine”. Nor did ‘e say, “Darling, be mine”. So why do I see in ‘im everything. Well, sparrers, poor sparrers, pretty sparrers can’t sing”. Love is ever eternally complicated. A personable journey of adoration. Those externally looking at a relationship, judging on what has outwardly happened, including domestic violence, will criticise. Yet the two individuals comprising of the relationship realise the true potential and experience the abundance of feelings they have for one another. The same can be said for Cockney sailor Charlie, whom returns home to the East End of London after a long voyage, only to find his wife living with another man. His usual foul temper is tested as he attempts reconciliation with Maggie in order to pursue a new loving life with her.
Littlewood’s adaptation of the ‘60 kitchen sink play relishes in representing Cockney life. From the community of Jewish tradesmen, spivs and youthful “tarts” to iconic establishments such as local pubs. All capitalising on Lewis’ dialogue-intensive screenplay that blends Cockney rhyming slang (“dog and bone”), London Yiddish (“bubbe”) and thieves’ cant (“bowsing ken”). Streamlining a plot that originally revolved around improvisational techniques to produce the quaint comedy that plagued 60s productions. For those unaccustomed to such language, it is undoubtedly difficult to follow. An infamous challenge that made history by being the first English language film to be released with subtitles in the United States. Whilst the babble of slang is often incomprehensible, particularly the comedic moments, it provided authenticity to the cobbled streets of Limehouse. Accompanied by Littlewood’s locational set pieces, Sparrows Can’t Sing truly embodied East End life by sifting through each character to create a sense of community. A time when everyone would say “alrite mate?” to each other instead of shrouding themselves in ignorance. Arguably a happier time.
The problem with the constant shifting of character focus, is that there really is no direction from a cinematic perspective. The central story between Charlie and Maggie is so menial and derivative due to the avoidance of confrontation, that Littlewood spends most of the runtime exploring the East End by showcasing conversations from other individuals residing in various backgrounds. Fred, Bridgie and Charlie arguing amongst themselves in a family dispute. Nellie being enchanted by two blokes named Georgie and Chunky. Jack wandering around with his canary. Lewis himself portraying a prudish caretaker, and a plethora of other characters all yearn for the spotlight. When the feature decides to eventually realign its focus towards Maggie and Charlie, it’s too little too late. Their character development was almost non-existent by the concluding argument, not to mention the definition of loyalty being a product of its time (no way would she go back to an abuser now...).
Windsor offers a sterling and commanding performance as the metaphorical sparrow whom cannot sing, nearly exerting her legendary giggle from the ‘Carry On’ franchise. Although, would’ve preferred a “Get outta ma pub!” attitude. Booth exudes devilish charm with unpredictability, similar to Del Boy in the popular sitcom ‘Only Fools and Horses’. In fact, the supporting cast were well suited to the East End life with their poignantly exaggerated slangs.
However the insignificance of the central story, equipped with brashly edited quick cuts and false whimsicality, grounds this sparrow to a subterranean level of engagement. A watchable breezy adaptation that appreciates the setting more than the characters. Lewis’ kitchen sink play functions better as a theatre production than it does a cinematic endeavour.