Clare Burt as the indomitable Joan Littlewood with the company. Pictures: Topher McGrillis

Miss Littlewood

Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon


Miss Littlewood is a new musical centred on the life of legendary theatre director Joan Littlewood (1914-2002), who to a large extent with her company at the Theatre Royal, Stratford, East London led the field in changing the way people, and companies, view theatre.

She was a revolutionary, and that at least this staging hammers home, not least thanks to Clare Burt, who plays the ‘original’ Joan, and who acts as an intermittent master of ceremonies-cum-narrator, nudging events along.

The music and lyrics are all composed by the writer, Sam Kenyon, and while the songs can scarcely be described as original, they are sound ‘Musicals’ material and almost all fabulously sung, sometimes by full cast, sometimes by individuals.

Three of the outstanding performers in this respect are Aretha Ayeh (the second Joan, quite superb, vibrant and wonderfully articulate) and Emily Johnstone, who treated us to a show-stopping solo as Barbara Windsor, a Littlewood protégé, but also whipped up a vivid evocation of Joan early in the first half. 

If the music had real quality, it was in the band: Tarek Merchant, both music director and orchestrator, showed real imagination in the way he galvanised the songs. Flute, trumpet and especially xylophone or various percussion created a kind of counterpoint, so that there was always something going on.

Two of the performers, Tam Williams (trombone) and especially Amanda Hadingue on violin, treated us to some fetching, even impressive onstage musicianship. Greg Barnett with his Irish folk guitar added atmosphere. The cast’s quality singing guaranteed a charming musical show.


Aretha Ayeh as Joan and Amanda Hadingue as Nick

But yes, there were problems. As indicated above, Clare Burt plays the ‘original’ Miss Littlewood, The fact that Joan was played by seven different characters – indicating, it was suggested, though slightly limply, the many facets of this fascinating character – was indeed an original idea which lent the performance a freshness.

But this was the start of the problem. Firstly, it would have been far better if Burt’s contribution, she having the most charisma of all those on stage, had been more substantial. Too often she was located at one or other stage, or drifting about without the chance to make more than a passing contribution (mostly calling scene numbers).

Textually, this was a show in a hurry. All the interaction and entwinings were fun. But with musical numbers frequently breaking in, the dialogue, not that there were many straightforward exchanges, suffered. It was notable how much more involving the quieted moments, like Barbara Windsor’s fabulously moving, lulling soliloquy (the splendid Johnstone, with trumpet and xylophone), proved. At last we saw, and felt, a real individual, not some kind of submerged team player.

The start looks and sounds like Oliver, and it might have been nice if that kind of quality had been maintained. But quickly the difficulties emerged. Too often in the first half (the second was arguably better, more lucid) the blocking of characters by director Erica Whyman was too haphazard, muddled, floppy. Likewise the very modest dance numbers. If you’re going to have it as a Musical, you surely need musical precision from the dance bits (Lucy Hind), which stand apart.

They were too often approximate, loose,  mere jigging, looked under rehearsed, a bit feeble. It wasn’t that no effort went into them, or that the audience didn’t enjoy them. It’s just that they looked imperfect, and tangibly less than first rate.

Various of these issues, if they are issues, may have derived from the attempt to show Littlewood’s company as relaxed and laid back, at least in rehearsal. Hence, perhaps, the very motley collection of costumes (Tom Piper designed the show; no costume designer is credited, though Sam Pickering was ‘Costume Supervisor’). Of course, this is how it probably was. But shambolic dress, like shambolic movement, needs plotting. Only the men’s short sleeved jerseys, deliciously of the period, seemed to be actually designed or devised. Others of the cast looked as if they had been told to bring their curtains from home. Functional, perhaps: but nothing to praise or comment on.


Dawn Hope as Joan and Emily Johnstone as Barbara Windsor

If Aretha Ayeh’s singing was electrifying, and Sophia Nomvete’s contribution pretty forceful (she has a couple of very funny scenes), one of these obvious stars was Sandy Foster, who played Joan number 4. Alive and lithe, displaying a vivid range and variety, nicely sly and sarcastic, a smart mover and immensely appealing in glaring scarlet, she certainly beefed up the script impressively (‘Far too bourgeois for our company: it looks as if you’ve been dressed by your mother’).

But in her scenes, some of these fly-by-night characters, the splendid Murray Melvin, Shelagh Delaney, Victor Spinetti and co., (and before that, John Gielgud) were introduced only to be dumped. There was a lack of follow-up. So they added little to the story. We want to know why they are there. We want the background. We want the justification. We need them to add to the story. That did not stop Frank Norman (Ayeh) and Lionel Bart (Johnstone) – the two most engaging soloists - having a delightful duet, reprising ‘A Taste of Honey’.

So this was the main problem. We emerged having seen and heard a thousand vignettes, many of them skilfully or at least cheerfully acted, but we came away without Joan’s real, wider achievement. In focusing on her person it failed to focus on her theatre; in lauding her innovation, it failed to emplify it.

Her personality, yes, to a degree, nicely backed up in Kenyon’s script by important, telling lines like ‘I want to show people that they’re freer than they think’, ‘don’t call it a yacht: they’ll think we’re middle class’; ‘no, we can’t have all these BBC vowels’; or Joan cheerfully dismissing the National Anthem as ‘Imperialist crap’.).

Tangled details of her life. But there was too much paraphernalia, too many interruptions, some apt, some gratuitous. We scarcely saw Joan directing, or got an insight into one of her more famous productions (some hints in comments about Brendan Behan and The Quare Fellow’, of which she directed the London premiere in 1956). With seven (or eight) Joans, we scarcely got more than a flood of anecdotal references. There was jerky continuity, and inadequate purpose. I would have thought the RSC commissioners might have spotted that. Ropy backroom work.

There were a few pretty trivial attempts at a history lesson; Hitler, Japan, a bit of waffle about uranium which was, nevertheless, on the edge of grasping the kind of serious reflection this flawed piece needed. But let’s not pretend the book, and some of the lyrics, didn’t have its entertaining and amusing elements. The show was great fun, the witticisms flowed. The script was rather a success in that respect. At times it gleamed. The Ensemble singing was a huge pleasure. Burt and Johnstone had already fired things up at the outset (‘I’m Joan, and if nobody loves me, what do I care?’). But the group’s ‘I walk, talk all the way to Manchester’, led by Joan 2 (Ayeh, who also excelled leading ‘The Trouble with Theatre’ in reprise) was one treat. ‘Goodbye’ (Ayeh to the fore again) was wonderfully spirited. Laura Elsworthy’s initial ‘A Taste of Honey’ a real joy, insightful, one of the best.  

As indicated, arguably the second half of Whyman’s staging had the edge on the first. The facts emerged clearer. But there were many, many delicious performances in both. Solomon Israel (as Gerry Raffles), for instance: suave, sympathetic, intuitive, possibly even (heaven forfend) posh-looking.

If Jimmy’s (Miller’s) Irish brogue and strummings were attractive, his scene with Joan 4 (Foster), if I’ve got that right, was scintillating, and prolonged enough to make an impact. Vignettes they may have been, but Amanda Hadingue’s appearances, as the salacious Lesbian Nick, as Archie, as John Bury (another character introduced but then underused), and ultimately the 6th Joan, were each characterful, and rich in deliberate pastiche and mannerism.

Greg Barnett as Jimmie Miller, who was better known by his stage name Ewan MacColl, with Dawn Hope and Amanda Hadingue as Archie Harding

Aretha Ayeh, as mentioned, had arguably the consistently best voice, and a presence to go with it. But Emily Johnstone was in there too, with a fabulous delivery and sometimes deeply affecting. The third Joan, Sophia Nomvete, had a larger than life presence and a big voice too. One of those who constantly pleased the eye with, like Foster, her range and delivery and satisfying intrusions, was Daisy Badger, often enough bursting in like a kind of stage manager, issuing instructions to the cast and crew. A slightly minor role that impacted each time.

One can enthuse about many aspects of this production: its pzazz, its sense of fun, its aspiration to unravel for an audience a complex personality. There wasn’t much of a set (Tom Piper) to light one up, just a roll-out platform to pretty little purpose, and a handful of not especially instructive image projections. (Deliberately bald, perhaps, to suggest the self-conscious plainness and lack of pomp of the set-up.) But everyone believed what they were doing, put their backs into every moment of the show, endeavoured to give meaning to events even when those were a bit elusive, brought spirit to the ensembles. It’s just that the script needs to go to a second, or yet another, draft. It’s flaky.

Finally, a groan about theatre programmes, of which the RSC is a notorious example. Theatres have increasingly abandoned the very crucial task of supplying a synopsis (something that opera, even those employing surtitles, would never do. Instead, they go for blurb and background comment (though four sides of discussion here were exceptionally good and revealing. If you don’t have something to let you know what’s happening, then it’s up to the cast and the script. And often, as here, they don’t do so.

Equally, crucial information – eg song titles here – is separated (by the blurb) from the cast list, One is constantly flailing around to try and put the two together. Isn’t this unnecessary? The logic seems flawed. To 04-08-18

Roderic Dunnett


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