Book, Music and Lyrics: Sam Kenyon
Director: Erica Whyman
Reviewer: James Garrington
“We know about so many unremarkable men and so few remarkable women”.
So says Joan Littlewood in this production, in a clear reference to herself – because for many outside the world of theatre, the name Joan Littlewood may not mean very much at all. Working during the mid-20th century, she was a visionary who created theatre that was designed be provocative as much as entertaining – and arguably changed the perceptions of theatre in this country, from being traditional and very establishment-focussed to something more authentic and accessible to all.
Miss Littlewood tells the story of this remarkable woman – her birth to an unmarried mother in the East End of London, her first visit to the theatre when she was a teenager, her struggles and eventual success and recognition. All of this is told in classic Joan Littlewood style too – not only through her own eyes but as though she is directing her own life story. The result is that it contains some language that some people may find offensive – but that’s the sort of language Littlewood would use, and so here it is.
Clare Burt is a delight as Joan Littlewood, engaging with the audience and bringing them into the production. On the way through she enlists the help of six other ‘Joans’, each representing a different stage in her life – or maybe different aspects of her multi-faceted personality – played in succession by Emily Johnstone, Aretha Ayeh, Sophia Nomvete, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and
Dawn Hope. Each brings their own touch to the character – the teenager unimpressed by the play she’d witnessed on a school trip, the young woman who it is claimed walked from London to Manchester and joined an agitprop theatre company there, the struggling but uncompromising theatre producer. Greg Barnett plays Littlewood’s first love Jimmy Miller (who later became folk singer Ewan MacColl) as a classic anti-establishment character, and love of her life Gerry Raffles is touchingly played by Solomon Israel.
Apart from a notable turn by Sophia Nomvete as Avis Bunnage, the music (Sam Kenyon) is not very memorable, though it is catchy enough and seems fitting in the context of the show. Neither is it always delivered as well as it could be vocally – but that was very much Littlewood’s style, the quality of the vocal work being far less important than the message it was putting across. Like all of Littlewood’s work it’s an ensemble piece, and far more a piece of theatre than a traditional musical.
Miss Littlewood has the feel of a production that will create a divide among the audience. Fans of Joan Littlewood, those who appreciate the work she created and how she changed the world of theatre, will probably love it. If you’re one of the people who doesn’t get it, it will possibly leave you cold – though you cannot fail to appreciate the quality of the performance.
Runs Until 4 August 2018 | Image: Topher McGrillis (c) RSC