The Swan Theatre
Joan Littlewood was a hugely influential figure in mid-twentieth century British drama, innovating in theatre and theatre direction in a similarly important way to Jonathan Miller in opera productions.
Sam Kenyon’s new musical is a tribute to Littlewood, telling some of her story in a kind of theatrical biopic. It is hard watching it to separate what is his work and what is director Erica Whyman’s but this is consonant with Littlewood’s productions which often blurred the line between writer, composer and director, as seen in her iconic Oh What a Lovely War.
Littlewood’s innovations such as regional accents, ensemble productions, audience involvement, workshop rehearsals are all taken for granted now but they were strikingly new to her audiences in the north of England and then at her eventual permanent London base the Theatre Royal, Stratford East. In her company actors came and went, earned a pittance while they broke new ground and Kenyon and Whyman show these things throughout.
The show is narrated by one permanent Joan (Clare Burt) but Joan at different stages of her career is played by six other actresses (bug, small, black, white, with different accents) with the permanent Joan often breaking traditional theatrical boundaries by interacting with the audience and commenting on the performances of the Joans.
I wish I knew more about the specific directorial techniques Littlewood used (I am old but not old enough to have seen more than a few of her productions at Stratford East which came to an end in 1975). But it seemed to me that Whyman and Kenyon were telling the story in very much the same way as Littlewood would have done, so that this musical is an insight into mid-twentieth century theatre in Littlewood’s hands, theatre which led to the development of agitprop, for example. And Whyman, like Littlewood, expects her actors to be able to act, to play musical instruments, to sing and dance. These they do splendidly.
This production certainly gets across the idea that theatre should be an immersive experience, that theatre should not be elitist, that radicalism and satire are what drive our nation forward. It also raises timely issues such as inclusivity, equal opportunities for talent regardless of background and funding for the arts. The RSC can’t quite manage Littlewood’s dream of a multi-class audience, though the CV37 tickets ought to help.
Whyman’s meticulous attention to detail, the readiness of all her productions for a first preview audience, attention to detail and intellectual coherence are all on view. What is extraordinary is that she should have two artistic triumphs running at the same time at the RSC (Romeo and Juliet and Miss Littlewood) coming hot on the heels of the artful but seemingly artless direction of Three Letters at The Other Place. It all leaves me hungry for more of her work.
Whether the music will prove as catchy as Oh What a Lovely War’s and whether the satirical edge is a keen as in Littlewood’s work only time will tell.
But what remains very clear in my mind is the success of this show as an ensemble production. True, there are some fine performances (Clare Burt as Joan Littlewood, Greg Barnett as Jimmie Miller, Solomon Israel as Gerry Raffles, Sophia Nomvete and Emily Johnstone as Joans) and a great deal of slick stagecraft, scene changing and furniture removal – from the performers’ point of view it is all hands on deck. As I write this in the week that our Prime Minister threatened her cabinet with the news that she had replacements ready if they did not tow her line, this production’s message about co-operation and egalitarianism is stark.
How commercial this musical will prove to be I don’t know. Littlewood wouldn’t have cared. It doesn’t have the gimmicks and Dahlish appeal of Matilda, but it is much cleverer and more uplifting. Come and see it. If you can combine it with a visit to Romeo and Juliet and enhance your experience with a stay at Moss Cottage you will be made very welcome.