“We know about so many unremarkable men, but so few remarkable women,” Joan Littlewood utters at the start of the show. It’s a question that continues throughout this production as it unravels the fascinating story of a woman who is said to have ‘led a revolution in British theatre.’
Sam Kenyon has created a masterpiece as he manages to capture every side of Joan Littlewood through the seven actors playing Joan. We see her grow up from a young girl in Stockwell going on her first school trip to the theatre, her struggle to fit in at RADA, and her huge success at Stratford East. All of this is tangled up in her love story with Gerry Raffles. Joan paved the way for diversity in theatre and her story is frankly incredible.
Clare Burt leads the show, taking on the role of Joan to narrate her own story. She uses six other women to take on the role of Joan in every aspect of her life, from when she is born to her final monologue. Burt portrays the strong-willed, fiery and passionate woman with real authenticity.
When interviewing Kenyon, he told me Miss Littlewood was ‘impossible to describe.’ This is clear in the many different versions of Joan we see on stage. All played by actors that not only have a different style of character, but all have a different look. As they pass around the Joan Littlewood hat, we are introduced to each version of Joan. At times we see all the Joans come together, reacting and interacting with one another in the pivotal moments in her life, which is gorgeously moving. Emily Johnstone plays the naive and cheeky young Joan growing up, Sophia Nomvete captures the confidence of Joan starting out in her career and falling in love, and Sandy Foster portrays her determination and graft during her successes and failures at Stratford East.
With live music that fuels the narrative along, Kenyon’s music and lyrics are pure genius. Encapsulating the theatricality of Joan’s life, the music adds immense depth to her character. Although the show feels slightly long and could do with tightening in places, it’s hard to fit such an expansive career into two and a half hours. In numbers like The Trouble With Theatre we gain an understanding of her frustration with the theatre industry, sparking her motivation to make theatre accessible for all. Littlewood encouraged actors in her company to use their own accents, as opposed to everyone sounding the same. She really was an extraordinary woman who strived to make theatre a place for everyone.
Not only is it amazing to see so many women on stage at the RSC, but this innovative production created by Sam Kenyon and directed by Erica Whyman has so much more meaning because it is opening at the RSC. With the origins of the RSC being somewhere that Joan would disregard, this production echoes the evolution of the theatre itself. This becomes clear in the hilarious scenes between Joan and the Arts Council that receives roars of laughter from the audience. Kenyon has done a tremendous job not only telling the story of Joan Littlewood, but conveying the struggles and frustrations in the theatre industry and the winding road it has been on to be where it is today.
Miss Littlewood is beautifully well-crafted to tell the tale of a visionary woman on her journey from the East End to the West End. With brilliant humour, a sublime score and a heartfelt human story at its core, it is a triumphant musical that is perfect for anyone with a passion for theatre.
On until the 4th of August in the RSC’s Swan Theatre, tickets and information can be found online here.
Photo credit: Topher McGrillis