As a nomadic theatrical pioneer who finally found a home at the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, Joan Littlewood would be astonished to find her life and work being celebrated in a musical by the RSC. Even if the peculiar nature of her genius often eludes Sam Kenyon, who has done the book, music and lyrics, it is hard not to warm to a show that introduces a new generation to the huge debt British theatre owes her.
Kenyon’s most radical idea is to have no less than seven actors represent his heroine: a way of signalling her diversity as well as being a nod to Shakespeare’s seven ages speech.
Clare Burt is the mature Joan, supposedly in charge of proceedings. Joan’s trademark black cap is, however, passed from head to head as she looks back over her life.
She starts out as an illegitimate south London kid, wins a scholarship to Rada and goes on to make BBC radio documentaries in 1930s Manchester. It is there that she gets involved in leftwing theatre groups, co-founds the itinerant Theatre Workshop and, after it settles in east London in 1953, is acclaimed for her productions of A Taste of Honey, The Hostage and Oh What a Lovely War.
Kenyon rightly seizes on key aspects of Littlewood’s life, above all her belief in the ensemble principle that made her regard desertion as a personal betrayal along with her devotion to the company’s manager, Gerry Raffles, whose death in 1975 killed her creative urge. But in reminding us of Littlewood’s antiestablishment ferocity, championship of new writers and belief that theatre should be available to everyone, Kenyon overlooks other aspects of her credo.
We forget now that Littlewood had a deep knowledge of the classics and characteristically advised a young Shelagh Delaney to go away and read Ibsen. The improvisatory fluidity of her productions was also deceptive. “Her shows,” the actor Murray Melvin once told me, “were as carefully structured as a Mozart symphony.”
This show may not portray Littlewood in her entirety, but Kenyon pays due tribute to a tenacity that saw her in constant conflict with a miserly Arts Council. His songs also remind us that she regarded music as a vital component of theatre. In Stratford East, at the start of the second half, is a delightful hymn to the rat-ridden palace of varieties that she and Raffles turned into a theatrical mecca. A later song, A Little Bit of Business, is full of the pluck and cheek that shows why Barbara Windsor immediately became one of the discerning Littlewood’s great discoveries.
Erica Whyman’s production reproduces the seamless mix of story, music and movement that was Littlewood’s hallmark. It is as if we are seeing Joan’s methods applied to her life.
Passing the cap like the baton in a relay race, the actors who represent her – Burt, Emily Johnstone, Aretha Ayeh, Sophia Nomvete, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue, Dawn Hope – admirably bring out multiple facets of her character, from her missionary fervour to her bullying possessiveness. But, if anything surprises me about this engaging musical, it is Kenyon’s stress on the ultimate solitude of this charismatic revolutionary.