“What’s new in the world of revolutionary theatre?”, I hear you ask.
“Why, the RSC‘s new musical ‘Miss Littlewood‘ “, I reply.
In Stratford for a limited time only, ‘Miss Littlewood’ explores the life and work of English theatre director and “charismatic theatrical revolutionary” Joan Littlewood. Known as ‘The Mother of Modern Theatre’, Joan is perhaps best remembered today for works such as ‘A Taste of Honey’, ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’ Be’, and ‘Oh, What A Lovely War’.
Directed by Erica Whyman, with original book, music and lyrics by Sam Kenyon, the musical shines a spotlight on this extraordinary woman, perhaps lesser known by the younger generations of today, inviting audiences to take note of the incredible, and somewhat unprecedented, effect she had, not only the theatre of her time, but on the theatre of her future – the theatre of today.
With a particular focus on Joan”s successes and failures in the competitive world of theatre, ‘Miss Littlewood’ is a remarkable production about a remarkable woman, whose priority was “the democratisation of an art form”.
The musical begins by exploring Joan’s humble beginnings, born out of wedlock to a young single mother, looked down upon by many in the industry for this “predicament”, and follows her through her life as she sets out to revolutionise theatre. We see her personal highs and lows, her professional successes and shortcomings, the obstacles she faced, how she dealt with them, and her struggle to become a successful, and respected, theatre director in her own right. Additionally, the musical deftly offers a touching nod to her romantic relationships – first with Jimmie Miller, and then Gerry Raffles – as, later in her life, she began to regret not having made the most of her relationships, of not having fully appreciated those she loved, reflecting on what she would have said had she time enough, and words.
In a musical about such a woman as Joan Littlewood, it is encouraging to see a cast dominated by women. With a cast of 9 women and only 3 men, the audience are under no illusion that this production is one that sets about to address this all-too-often unequal balance, as it highlights the necessity of women in the world of theatre – a world that continues to be dominated by men – stressing the value of women as, not only actors, but as directors, producers, etc. The musical immediately raises the question concerning why – and not only in theatre – do we hear of so many “unremarkable men”, yet so few “remarkable women”. Thus, in this production, a chord is certainly struck, as it walks boldly towards achieving equality in theatre, towards equal representation, in, not just gender equality, but also in diversity.
Interestingly, a total of seven actresses, all remarkably talented, portray the character of Joan Littlewood, each one depicting her at a different stage in her life, with Clare Burt‘s Joan Littlewood, narrator of the piece, as our ‘main’ Joan, herself appearing to direct the rest of the cast as they, seeming to follow her direction, act out her life before her.
It’s certainly true that each and every one of these actresses do justice to this powerful theatrical figure. From Emily Johnstone’s young yet outspoken Joan, bewildered at seeing a production of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar still using togas as costume, Burt’s Joan continues to recast actresses to play her, in keeping with the age she would have been during the given scenes, which run chronologically, until, by the end of the show, Aretha Ayeh, Sophia Nomvete, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope have each stepped into the shoes (and hat) of Joan Littlewood. Although each actress brought a little something different to the role, each offering a refreshing glimmer of their own personality, thereby collectively giving the character body, depth and dimension, the grit, the unyielding determination, and the vision of Joan united them all, and it was therefore wholly believable that they were each contributing, in their turn, to the portrayal of just one character.
Each of these actresses were wonderful, spearheaded by Burt’s shining performance – all women capturing Joan’s strength, juxtaposing this with some moments of fragile vulnerability. Daisy Badger excels as left-wing theatrical Rosalie Williams, and Greg Barnett and Solomon Israel as Jimmie Miller and Gerry Raffles respectively give very worthy performances, both beautifully portraying their character’s very tender, and very human, relationship with Joan.
Burt’s Joan, in her ‘direction’ of the musical, goes some way to break that fourth wall as, acutely aware of her audience, she frequently engages with us, doing so in a way that is so much more conversational, more natural, than the formality of a traditional soliloquy, yet serves a similar purpose, in that the character is able to reveal to us her innermost thoughts. She interacts with her cast regularly, correcting them if their portrayal of her younger self, and her life, wasn’t exactly as it should be, and pulling up the musicians if they don’t hit quite the right note she was after.
Refusing to sit quietly on the sidelines, this Joan regularly interrupts scenes, her direction cleverly punctuating the piece, often provoking a response of annoyance from her acting company, yet one of delight from the audience. Whilst this causes a temporary break in the pace of the production, it ensures the show is not simply linear and, as quickly as Burt’s Joan had interrupted, another Joan would begin a new scene, which made for an interesting, an exciting, watch, as audiences could never be quite sure what was coming next – a feeling, it seems, shared by those who knew her.
While we learn that Joan Littlewood was not one to let truth stand in the way of a good story, this production is one of a charming honesty, managing to strike a perfect balance between the two. Whilst still a wholly entertaining musical, it is one that is littered with truth, depicting Joan as she was; her life, as it was, not holding back from the cruder details. Each one of our Joan’s are so bold, so brazen, so straight-talking, which makes the character so very endearing, and so very human.
Joan Littlewood championed theatre that was honest, current and topical, aware of its subsequent ability to more powerfully challenge minds, and touch hearts. Joan certainly understood the importance of relevant theatre, and this production very aptly examines her efforts to make theatre more affordable, accessible and relatable, bringing theatre to the masses, reaching all ranges of society, however obscure. It’s refreshing to see so many theatres today adopting this attitude, an attitude that is quite clearly embedded in the vision of the RSC who, like Joan, recognise the importance of ensuring that that theatre reaches more people, touching more hearts than ever before.
Joan Littlewood was indeed a woman “shattering precedent after precedent”, and this is something the RSC continue to do in their production of exciting new works, in which they too seek to push the boundaries of modern theatre, and this musical, based on the life of such a revolutionary, is a revolution in and of itself.
A comical new musical, Miss Littlewood doesn’t fail to touch hearts, questioning the very nature, the very purpose, of theatre, causing a basis for audience reflection as, along with the cast, we collectively join in looking back at theatre’s past – at its reticence, its prejudice and inequality – and begin to look towards theatre’s possible future. As the world, as life, continues to move forwards, it is only natural that theatre, a reflection of life, moves forwards with it, not just in the subject matter it presents, but in what it stands for.
When it comes to the theatre of today, it can be said with conviction that ‘Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’ Be’ and this is because of the vision of people like Joan Littlewood. This invigorating new musical not only highlights Joan’s incredible life and work, it also immortalises her legacy, inspiring others to pick up the torch, and continue her mission to democratise theatre.