Saturday, 30 June 2018

Theatre review: Miss Littlewood

The influential theatre director and coat thief Joan Littlewood will always be associated with Stratford, so it seems inevitable that a new musical about her life would premiere there; but maybe there was some confusion about which Stratford, because instead of East London Miss Littlewood has turned up in the West Midlands, opening at the RSC. Sam Kenyon's musical sees Joan Littlewood (Clare Burt) narrate her own life, taking control of the story in a way that will prove characteristic of the way she worked. The show's conceit is that a further six actors also play her in various stages of her life, showing her getting older, but also suggesting constant reinvention - the younger Joans all represent different aspects of her personality, the older ones an attempt to tie them all together.

But it's also another way for the narrator version of Littlewood to show she's in charge: Emily Johnstone's Joan 1 is struck by the power of theatre and the desire to change it, but Littlewood decides she's not got the grittiness to take it to the next stage, and recasts her with Aretha Ayeh's Joan 2.

Sophia Nomvete's Joan 3, on the other hand, decides for herself when to take over the role when Littlewood isn't paying attention, and is never forgiven for it. This steely grip on her work is softened by the show's other ongoing theme, of her love for her producer and long-term partner Gerry Raffles (Solomon Israel) despite his constant cheating on her. She sees the way the show relives her personal history as a way of spending the time with him she regrets missing before his death, but she can't rewrite history and has to watch her time with him flash past again.

Erica Whyman's production adds a curtained proscenium arch to the Swan's deep thrust stage courtesy of Tom Piper's design, a small platform sliding out from behind the curtains to play out biographical scenes; the full size of the stage is reserved for Littlewood and her casts behind the scenes, where we're most interested in her. Although openly calling her a bully Kenyon's play is for the most part sympathetic to the woman determined to tear down and rebuild British theatre, who got some huge commercial hits out of political and social critique.

Interestingly in all her struggles to get taken seriously and secure funding, only her class is ever presented as an obstacle, not her gender; I don't know enough about the real Littlewood to say if this is deliberate or an omission, but with the imbalance between men and women running theatres still being an issue today, it seems unlikely the subject wouldn't have been raised in the sixties, regardless of how blithely she might have ignored it and ploughed on. I also wondered about the first act's promise that the second would show us a piece of work that remains an Establishment bête noire to this day: From context that can only be her most famous play Oh, What A Lovely War! but I'm not aware of that being regarded as anything other than a hugely influential classic these days.

What Miss Littlewood does do unambiguously is entertain, with a number of good songs ranging from a classic musical theatre style to pastiches of the music from her own shows. Though aiming for warts-and-all it ends up a pretty sympathetic portrayal, and each of the Joans brings her own flavour while keeping a certain consistency: From Sandy Foster playing her in her prime with a weird fondness for stealing people's coats, to Amanda Hadingue's Joan 5 jaded by her own success, and Dawn Hope's strong-voiced Joan 6 so much a part of the Theatre Royal's fabric she's mistaken for the cleaner by Barbara Windsor (Johnstone.) A strong cast and some good songs, even if the show doesn't end up quite as explosive as its subject in the end.

Miss Littlewood by Sam Kenyon is booking in repertory until the 4th of August at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon.

Running time: 2 hours 40 minutes including interval.

Photo credit: Topher McGrillis.

1 comment:

  1. I personally thought it was the worst thing I've seen at the RSC..The acting was ok but the material they had to work with was appalling..I'm not offended by swearing but all the constant insertion of the F, S & W words for shock jock horror was plain ...ZZZZZZ