RSC Swan Theatre
Joan Littlewood, to this day, cuts a very singular figure in the history of the British stage. Revered and feared in equal measure by those she worked with, she produced some truly revolutionary productions in the 50s and 60s.
Throughout the post-war decades of change she turned her back on established theatre’s accepted manner and practice and brought the politics of the working man into the rehearsal room and the stage of Stratford E15’s Theatre Royal..
Staunchly left-wing and a sworn opponent of anything affected, showy or false in the craft of acting, finding her centre stage in a musical is, on the face of it, plain bizarre.
But under the crisp direction of Erica Whyman, Sam Kenyon’s bright new musical tries to bridge that clear divide. Catchy tunes, witty lyrics and elaborate routines all make for a great spectacle. Brash, brassy and very much in-yer-face.
Away from the front-on assault of big set-piece numbers, this is as good an example of ensemble work as anything the Theatre Workshop team could have produced. Everyone takes a turn to play Joan, luminaries in the narrative are shared about and the dialogue fizzes from person to person. There’s gender-reversal and a diversity that Miss Littlewood would have loved. No stars, no special mentions, just a cracking team.
As a company portrayal of a difficult, complex character trying to get what she wants while simultaneously trying to work out what she wants, there’s clearly material for a decent human drama here.
The question in most people’s minds must surely be whether a piece of musical theatre as garish as this is a suitable vehicle upon which to examine the life and values of the woman who made it her personal crusade to strip affectation and narcism out of British theatre. She never shifted from those principles; not in her own later writings or in the strict no-nonsense philosophy of the acting school which still bears E15’s name, keeping her legacy alive.
So is it a send-up or are we really expected to buy the idea of red Joan plaintively singing of the man she lost? There’s a very thin line between parody and hypocrisy at work here. Quite what the unfailingly anti-star, pro-company Joan would have made of many of these look-at-me song performances is a fair question. The clash isn’t present in the acting, only in the musical numbers.
The razzmatazz of the productions big numbers sits uneasily with the gritty, no-frills driving force behind era-defining productions of the plays of Delaney or Behan. There’s not a lot of Broadway glamour to be had in east London.
America, Joan scoffs at one point, land of the indiscriminate standing ovation. Thirty minutes later the company are begging for – and getting – just such a rapturous response as they high kick their way through a full-volume reprise.
At that point you’d expect Joan, who has dismissed so many ordinary people’s coats as being too bourgeois, to stride forward and damn the polished gloss being applied to her own rough tale. But this is a musical and that sort of thing never happens.
E15 Acting School alumnus 1984
Miss Littlewood runs at the Swan Theatre until August 4. Visit rsc.org.uk for tickets and further details.