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Rollicking musical tribute to a theatrical giant

Miss Littlewood, Swan Theatre, Stratford, to August 4.

In this rollicking musical the establishment pays homage to one of its fiercest critics, Joan Littlewood, who wanted to democratise theatre, who had an appetite for outrage, and who, battling hostility and condescension, changed British theatre for the better, for ever. But Joan, we are told early on, is in danger now of being one of the forgotten herself, along with other distinguished women of the theatre, while undistinguished male contemporaries are remembered and lauded. Unfortunately, this hugely enjoyable, clever, energetic, Littlewood-esque ensemble production doesn’t quite make the case. More or less chronologically, with a few flashbacks and flash forwards, Miss Littlewood tells Joan’s story from her unmarried mother’s pregnancy to the end of her stage career 27 years before her death. Carried along by songs and by the seven actors who play her, we accompany Joan through her early years in the 1930s as she rejects the south of England, art, stultifying theatrical conventions and graduation from RADA, and walks to Manchester (or maybe not – Joan was a great self-mythologiser) where she joins the Communist-inspired Theatre of Action, later Theatre Union, led by her future husband Jimmy Miller (aka Ewan McColl).

And then it's on to Joan in her heyday with the founding of Theatre Workshop and a string of ground-breaking productions (Uranium 235, A Taste of Honey, The Hostage, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, and of course Oh, What a Lovely War!, still making waves 55 years later). As the show makes clear, Joan's genius lay in her melding European influences with a love of English popular culture, and never straying from her commitment to the working class and left-wing politics. She was multifaceted and elusive, her many selves personified by the use of those seven actors. A high point in the evening, one of those moments when the audience seemed to hold its breath, was Joan’s encounter with fellow east-ender Barbara Windsor, a trial of strength between two immense women. Joan, who was never at home with herself, who was never understood, suddenly recognised herself reflected in another woman.

Joan’s long relationship with Gerry Raffles is centre stage, to an extent that left me wondering if a play about one of her male rivals for the theatrical pantheon would so prominently feature his lover. And the show feels a touch too reverential towards a profoundly irreverent person: Despite the prolific swearing, the intermittent asides and the audience participation, the show isn’t quite impolite, anarchic or surprising enough. One wonders how different a production at the other Stratford, Joan’s Stratford, would have been. And the outside world rarely intrudes, beyond a deliciously patronising turn by the Arts Council (which, after years of snooty refusal, grudgingly gave Theatre Workshop a small grant), and some offstage poaching by the BBC of Joan’s best talent. There are no critics, no affronted theatrical bigwigs.

As a result, anyone who didn’t already know how important an influence Joan was on British theatre (and apparently half the cast had never heard of her before rehearsals began), will have left the theatre little the wiser.

For tickets go to:

Picture by Topher McGrillis.

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