There was a time in the 60s and 70s when you couldn’t read anything to do with drama without seeing Joan Littlewood’s name somewhere in the influences. Today she’s largely forgotten – probably because, in retrospect, although she was a larger than life character, she wasn’t actually associated with that many memorable productions that have stood the test of time. She’s most famous for creating the Theatre Workshop at Stratford East, but people don’t tend to remember company names or buildings.
Oh What A Lovely War, of course, remains her stand-out show. She worked with Lionel Bart on Fings Aint Wot They Used T’Be. She encouraged (and largely re-wrote) the young Shelagh Delaney to create A Taste of Honey. She collaborated with Brendan Behan (when he was sober) to produce The Quare Fellow and The Hostage. But, as the very charming penultimate song in Sam Kenyon’s musical dedicated to the life and works of Joan Littlewood states, Nothing Much Happened After That. And the memories of Miss Littlewood are now well and truly faded. Perfect timing, then, for a look back at her life.
Let me start by saying that the press night audience absolutely adored the show. Lots of laughter, high applause levels and about a 30% standing ovation at the end. I, too, really wanted to love this show. Its subject has been too long ignored, and when you flip through the programme to discover that real-life people like Shelagh Delaney, Barbara Windsor, Lionel Bart, Victor Spinetti are actually featured in the show, it captures your imagination and makes you itch for something special. And whilst there are some elements that are absolutely fantastic, there are other aspects which, for me, turned me into something of a grumpy curmudgeon by the end.
It’s a show that gives with one hand, but then takes with the other. Take the structure; a perfect recreation of a Brechtian dream, with the character of Joan Littlewood both acting in, and narrating through, the entire show; introducing individual scenes with their scene number, and telling us in advance what would take place during the scene. Giving the role of Joan to seven different performers deliberately makes it virtually impossible to identify with her. The majority of the songs don’t evolve organically, instead they are artificially announced and plonked in place, which not only distances us from the story but distances us from the notion that this is, in fact, a musical. The show is also happening right here, right now; on the stage of the Swan Theatre, with you the audience and them the cast. There’s no fourth wall, it’s in a permanent state of demolition, as Joan argues the toss with us about the play itself; walking out at a bit she doesn’t like, telling members of the cast that they’d better watch out or else she’d sack them, that’s the kind of edgy presentation that dominates this show. Brecht was known for his Marxist theories and anti-bourgeois stance – much like Joan Littlewood herself, who actually directed and appeared in his Mother Courage and her Children – so, for me, this structure was absolutely perfect to represent her.
But with the rough comes the smooth. Part of the distancing effect of having seven Joans is that it is at times very hard to follow; particularly as the various actors all have other roles too and sometimes it’s hard to work out which of those roles they are performing. That’s great for a distancing effect, but lousy for understanding a show. I appreciate why they chose to split the role like that; the programme notes include a quote from Murray Melvin (who was in A Taste of Honey, Oh What A Lovely War AND is a character in Miss Littlewood), regarding the seven Joans saying: “thank God for that[…] when people ask what she was like, you want to ask, “which one”?” I’ve seen a production of The Tempest that featured six Ariels (it got a better reception, ho ho – geddit?) but seven Joans just becomes rather messy in the end. It did work well, however, in the scene where they were all surrounding Gerry Raffles in his sick bed.
Ah yes, Gerry Raffles. Ay, there’s the rub. Given that Joan Littlewood was a strong woman, a firebrand, a female innovator in a man’s world, what a shame that so much of her story had to be told through the rose-tinted glasses of her love for a man. “We know about so many unremarkable men, and so few remarkable women” says Joan, early in the play, to a rousing cheer from the audience. But then they go and spend so much time in this play on, frankly, an unremarkable man! Mrs Chrisparkle believes, and I concur, that this was a slap in the face for the sisterhood and an opportunity missed. It also makes so little sense. Throughout the early part of the show, Gerry’s first appearance is being anticipated, both by Joan herselves, and Rosalie (her assistant? director? stage manager? I was never sure). Then at the end his passing is lamented; but we never see why he had such an effect on her. He was a philanderer; there was no particular physical chemistry with Joan; to me he seemed no more than any other of her (basically unpaid) employees. I wasn’t convinced.
Here’s another rough with the smooth element: it’s actually, for the most part, a pretty funny script, with some very knowing moments, especially between Joan and the audience. It starts off with more than a nod to Richard Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors, with not only a member of the audience taking a role but also a plant in the audience. Then there are several “in” jokes about acting – the show takes place in Stratford (but not this Stratford); Rosalie takes Oscar Wilde’s great line from The Importance of Being Earnest about “all women become like their mothers, that is their tragedy; no man does, and that is his” and replaces it with references to actors and directors; and finally Joan gets her claws into Arts Council officials, describing them as wankers. But I can’t help but think that, knowing Joan Littlewood’s passion for the democratisation of the theatre, and her striving to making it a place where everyone is welcome and not just the privileged few, this “in-joke” style is completely inappropriate.
However, on the good side, what the play does achieve is a great insight into her collaborative style; most effectively portrayed in the scene where Barbara Windsor wants to walk out of Oh What A Lovely War and Joan deftly manipulates her back in; and also the scene where Jimmie Miller (later Ewan MacColl) and Howard Goorney almost come to fisticuffs and Joan deconstructs their fight direction. And the show highlights that she clearly was an enigma,; her despising wealth and the bourgeoisie but nicking the coats of every performer who wants to join the company points towards some kind of troubled soul. I got the feeling that, in today’s terms, if she’d been turned down by the Arts Council again she would definitely have crowdfunded her next project.
Musically, I found the show rather disappointing; Sam Kenyon’s music goes for 50s/60s workaday showtime pastiche or dingy club vibes, but with not one outstanding song or memorable melody – it’s all filler. Jimmie Miller’s Wanderer’s Lament and Barbara Windsor’s A Little Bit of Business help us to understand those characters – and were immaculately performed by Greg Barnett and Emily Johnstone – but, along with the other songs, they are quickly forgotten. I was disappointed in the presentation of Shelagh Delaney as some kind of secretarial sex-kitten, pertly wobbling on her office chair, when in fact she was as much of a strong woman go-getter as Littlewood was; with a song about A Taste of Honey that derives humour from the fact that the character of Geof is “not the marrying kind”- (knowing titter) – whereas Delaney’s own attitude to gay people in plays was of complete acceptance and no fuss. It just didn’t ring true at all.
Fortunately, the performances are excellent throughout, and one thing that having seven Joans does achieve is a high sense of ensemble playing. Claire Burt’s Joan Littlewood (the one that stays constant throughout the whole show) is an excellent portrayal of this complex, hard-hitting personality, sometimes fair, sometimes foul. Coming across as the unlikely lovechild of Che Guevara and Mary Portas, it’s a very knowing, very confident combination of the public and the private life of the woman. Perhaps surprisingly, she doesn’t constantly dominate the stage, frequently stepping back and observing the action so that we forget she’s there, which is a nice touch.
Amanda Hadingue is superb throughout, with her wonderfully arty avant-garde art teacher Nick, the dandy Victor Spinetti and other roles, including Joan 6. Emily Johnstone’s turn as Barbara Windsor is beautifully judged, suggesting the much-loved Babs without being an impersonation – and it works really well. There are excellent performances too from Aretha Ayeh as Joan 3 (her young challenging phase), Tam Williams as Howard Goorney and a delightfully soft-spoken Murray Melvin, Greg Barnett as the charismatic Jimmie Miller and Daisy Badger as the haranguing and harangued Rosalie. Best of all, the fabulous Sophie Nomvete steals every scene as the hard-working and inspirational Joan 4, and the “posh northern” Avis Bunnage – although they did play that open-voweled joke to death. Ms Nomvete broke our hearts as Sofia in The Color Purple and in Miss Littlewood she spreads joy with every breath she takes.
For me, there was much to enjoy and much to bang my head against a brick wall about. A true curate’s egg. The show is in repertoire at the Swan Theatre until 4th August.
Production photos by Topher McGrillis