Not everyone knows who Joan Littlewood was but by the end of Sam Kenyon’s enthralling biographic musical, Miss Littlewood, we’re closer to understanding what drove this maverick director, who was to be known as The Mother of Modern Theatre, to create innovative, controversial agitprop theatre.
Miss Littlewood has just opened at Stratford (arguably not the right one to premiere this enchanting show), in the RSC Swan Theatre, and it’s a triumph, featuring the sort of originality and no-frills staging that Joan would have approved of.
Littlewood, and her Theatre Workshop company, put Theatre Royal Stratford East, on the map with its provocative and experimental productions of plays concerned with contemporary social issues.
Before that the precocious teenager had walked out of RADA, claiming that it couldn’t teach her anything, and, apparently, walked from London to Manchester.
She did some work for the BBC, where she met her first husband, folk singer and Communist Jimmie Miller, before joining his militant theatre company called The Red Megaphones.
Later she was to fall in love with Gerry Raffles, a public school runaway and fellow Communist, who turned up on their doorstep one day asking to be a part of the theatre company.
Rude, outspoken, confrontational, Joan despised elaborate acting and staging, often stripping productions back to the basics.
So it does seem odd that Miss Littlewood should premiere in comfortable middle England. She refused to let the National stage Oh What A Lovely War! calling the theatre an “elitist and middle class anathema”. God knows what her thoughts were on the Royal Shakespeare Company.
I can imagine Joan, a subversive genius and one of the most influential directors of the 20th century, having a right laugh about her life story being turned into a musical for the Stratford-upon-Avon crowd.
Refreshingly neither Kenyon or director Erica Whyman, who has done a fabulous job, have played safe with her story.
It’s a warts-and-all exposé of a driven, anti-establishment, visionary who was more than capable of bullying people into getting exactly what she wanted.
She must have been difficult to work with but those closest to her wouldn’t have had it any other way.
Indeed two of her surviving Theatre Workshop actors, Murray Melvin, 85, who started off as a teaboy, and Barbara Young, now 82, were in the opening night audience watching themselves being portrayed on stage, which must have been a slightly surreal experience.
Clare Burt is dazzling as the definitive Joan.
She directs her own story from the stage using a succession of other younger, wildly diverse Joans, to act out the scenes.
They start off passing the director’s distinctive Breton cap from one to other, regenerating like Dr Who, from bubbly Emily Johnstone to Aretha Ayeh, Sophia Nomvete, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope.
The rest of the company play a variety of roles at different stages in Joan’s life.
Whyman cocks a snook at The Daily Mail’s Quentin Letts, who criticised the RSC’s colour-blind casting policy, and has given the role of Raffles to Solomon Israel, and he’s superb.
Johnstone is initially plucked out of the audience and asked to play a young Joan. A bit contrived but we all fell for it – at least for 30 seconds.
Later the actress, a real find, plays a blinder as a pair of famous Barbaras – Young and Windsor – as well as actress Pearl Turner and songwriter, Lionel Bart.
But, like Joan’s own theatre company, everyone pitches in. Greg Barnett works a little magic as Miller as well as playing her father, Robert, and, later, architect Cedric Price. Sophia Nomvete is inspirational as larger than life actress, Avis Bunnage.
And Tam Williams offers a brief glimpse of John Gielgud’s flamboyant Macbeth, becomes dour Mancunian actor Howard Goorney, takes a turn as a bellboy and, finally, plays Murray Melvin. I hope he found favour with the genuine article.
Burt is magnetic as Littlewood. She directs cast members with unlit cigarette in hand and an intense expression. You can almost see her thought processes at work, mapping out plays, characters and dialogue.
She’s fierce when others take over, unable to face some scenes, and reluctant to accept direction from anyone else.
Kenyon’s musical numbers are engaging and upbeat (he has written the book, music and lyrics, clever chap) and seem heavily influenced by Bart, who did a lot of work at Stratford East.
This lively, spirited production tends to run out of steam towards the end but you get the feeling that it reflects Joan’s own life.
After the success of Oh What A Lovely War! in 1963 she seemed to lose her way, not able to find a new challenge, or even want to.
She was so bereft following the death of her long-term lover, Raffles, in 1975, that she never entered Stratford East again.
Instead she went abroad where the ardent left-winger became the companion of Baron Philippe de Rothschild from the banking dynasty.
“Why do we know so much about so many unremarkable men and so little about remarkable women?” says Burt’s Joan. Why indeed?
Running at the Swan Theatre until August 4 and one would like to think, considering a transfer to the other Stratford sometime in the future.
Review. Sam Kenyon’s Miss Littlewood is a triumph. Rude, revolutionary and rich with storytelling. Clare Burt is mesmerising as the maverick theatre director.