Littlewood Mis-fire

Rating: 5

Miss Littlewood

by Ian Shuttleworth 

In the 1950s, Joan Littlewood revolutionised the presentation of theatre at Stratford, so it would seem only natural that Stratford now stages a bio-musical of her life and work. There’s just one teensy problemette: wrong Stratford.

Miss Littlewood tells of Joan's resolve to entertain working people in a popular style without either sermonising or copping out from serious content. After decades of touring, her Theatre Workshop set up their base in Stratford, east London. Within a few years, they had enjoyed successes not just there but in the West end and even Broadway with the likes of Brendan Behan’s The Quare Fellow and the hostage, Shelagh Delaney's a taste of honey, Lionel Bart’s breakthrough musical Fings Ain’t Wot They Used t’Be and above all the grimly satirical revue Oh! What a Lovely War.

It’s an admirable list of achievements, but not what you might consider in the vein of the Royal Shakespeare Company or at home in Stratford-upon-Avon. And this is the contradiction that bedevils Sam Kenyon's musical and Erica Whyman’s production.

However richly Joan deserves such attention and much more, the RSC can’t quite bring themselves to roll up their sleeves and get down to it.

There’s a lot of skillful pretence. Clare Burt as Joan – the main Joan – casts, directs and argues with a succession of transitory Joans portraying her at various ages. (The first such avatar appears initially to be picked from the audience.) But neither here, in her life (in relationships first with Ewan MacColl and then with Gerry Raffles, both of whom suffered from chronically wandering loins), nor above all in her work do you get a real sense of what goings-on were actually like. Things are recounted, explained and represented, but never brought to a life of their own.

This is especially crippling when they actually get to Stratford in the second half: almost all of those rumbustious successes are dealt with in a single extended musical number... and Kenyon's songs suggest he knows what music hall is but can’t quite bring himself to write it. I think the actual Joan would also have had a thing or two to say, in fairly blunt terms, regarding a show about a strong, opinionated woman who made work that aimed to get other women onstage out from under the male thumb, and yet is written entirely by a man. What Joan actually says here is, er, nothing at all for the past 27 years of her life: the show just peters out after Raffles’ death. It’s an informative, enlightening evening, and it’s very clever in the ways it pretends to be fun. But. Let’s just leave it there.

Until 4 August in the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 01789-403493, www.rsc.org.uk

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