BWW Review: MISS LITTLEWOOD, Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon
It is both a delight and a flaw of theatre that "you have to be there". It lends an all-important authenticity to the experience (one that is never captured on film) but it does mean that a play is very much "written in the air". That can make legacies hard to maintain, or even to identify, so it's marvellous to see a figure like Joan Littlewood given full value in this new musical. It's a chance to discover the person behind the name that is woven into the history of British theatre - and why she is still relevant today.
Sam Kenyon (who wrote the book, music and lyrics for this RSC production) tells of a life that almost exactly spanned the 20th century, but one in which each new day was greeted with a disdain for what had gone before and a commitment to change what would come next. Kenyon does have the problem of writing a play about theatre (freighting in all the backstage musical baggage) but goes for a meta vibe, with "Joan" on stage commenting on the action as various Joans play her (the "Comrade Corbyn" cap signifies who is Joan as she ages). It's a little smartarsedly irritating at times, but works well overall as a device to hold the show together.
Kenyon is at his best in capturing the joie de vivre of a troupe of actors, creatives and technicians coming together to re-invent theatre as an art form either side of the War. Joan is very much the er... alpha female, calling the shots and providing the radical political underpinning for the collective. Amongst many other works, A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'be and Oh What A Lovely War prove commercial and critical successes, placing working class voices in theatres around the country and in the West End. Work still to be done on that score though...
(As an aside, I'd love to see Fings on the curriculum for schools - kids would learn more about theatre, history and life from Lionel Bart than they would from any alternative I can suggest. Who knows, they might even be inspired to see some theatre that isn't panto!)
The start and end of Joan's career remains rather hazy. We understand why she hated the formal and classist RADA, but how did a working class teenager from a single parent
South London Sarf Larnden family get such a scholarship in the early 1930s? And how did she end up with a Rothschild in old age and what did she do with that influence and money?
The cast capture Joan's energy and quasi-anarchic approach through their own work. Clare Burt is engaging as the uber-Joan, pacing about the stage and stalls, breaking the fourth wall, having a pop or ten at the Arts Council. Circling her are the women and men of her life - all of whom sing well and can do exactly the right level of exasperation Joan so often displayed and provoked. Emily Johnstone is particularly impressive as Barbara Windsor, the voice and mannerisms spot on, innit?
Johnstone also gets the best song "A Little Bit Of Business" in a score that lacks showstopping numbers, but is never less than easy on the ear. There's plenty of movement too, mirroring Joan's restless nature, change to be embraced and not feared, mind and body never still.
It's a long show and it loses a little oomph in the last 40 minutes or so, as Joan becomes more of an establishment figure, courted by the likes of Hal Prince, losing collaborators to salaried jobs at the BBC, then retreating into a kind of theatrical exile after the death of long time partner and collaborator, Gerry Raffles. One wonders if that stuff might have been expedited in an epilogue, leaving us with Joan's triumph in bringing the squaddies to the stage with Oh What A Lovely War.
It was lovely to see some of those actors portrayed on stage in the audience for Press Night - and to see that Joan did make a difference to their lives and the lives of so many others who share my flat Northern vowels or my niece's Essex twang, but who dared to dream. And do you have Blood Brothers or Jack Rosenthal or even Eastenders without Joan? Maybe - but she was there first, fighting the good fight, blazing a trail for others to follow.
Photo Topher McGrillis