The Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, Wednesday 18th July, 2018
Erica Whyman’s exuberant production of this brand-new musical by Sam Kenyon tells the life story of one of the most influential figures of post-war British theatre, the formidable Joan Littlewood.
Clare Burt is Littlewood, narrating and sometimes ‘directing’ her own story, with other actors playing Joan at various ages, adopting Littlewood’s signature cap as a kind of visual synecdoche. Thus, Burt’s Joan is outside the main action, able to comment and intervene. The other characters give as good as they get – this is a highly theatrical piece about the theatre as much as it is a biography. There is frame-breaking in abundance and an awareness of the audience and the fabric of its own storytelling. Burt is wryly amusing as the no-nonsense Littlewood and, yes, a little bit scary in this whistle-stop tour of her personal and professional life. The hits (Oh, What A Lovely War, A Taste of Honey) and the misses (They Might Be Giants) are all covered here.
She is supported by a superlative ensemble, with the other (younger) Joans each making an impression – from Emily Johnstone (pulled from the audience in a need-a-volunteer stunt) giving us Joan as a young girl, to Aretha Ayeh’s Joan as an art student, Sophia Nomvete as the fledgling director Joan (Nomvete also delights later as Patricia Routledge-like figure, Avis Bunnage). Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope take up the mantle (well, the cap) as Littlewood in her later, successful years. This multiple casting means the Joans can appear on stage all at once for key moments, like the scene where love interest Gerry Raffles (a dapper Solomon Israel) recovers in his hospital bed. Surely, we too are composites of the versions of ourselves we have been throughout our lives.
There are cross-dressing roles, adding to the music hall aspects of the production. Emily Johnstone’s brief appearance as Lionel Bart, for example, and Amanda Hadingue’s Victor Spinetti, for another. Johnstone also puts in a winning turn as Barbara Windsor with a cheeky vaudeville number.
Gregg Barnett demonstrates his versatility in a range of parts, including Joan’s dad and the musician Jimmie Miller. Similarly, the excellent Tam Williams crops up time and again – he also plays a mean trombone.
Tom Piper’s set keeps the red curtain and proscenium arch as a backdrop – the theatre is literally behind everything Littlewood did. Whyman’s direction keeps the action fluid and the energies never flag. The show is relentlessly charming. Judicious use of captions and projections help us keep track of the timeline. The piece is riddled with such Brechtian devices – despite which, it has an emotional (but not sentimental) impact.
For me, the star is the show’s creator. Sam Kenyon’s book, music and lyrics (he did the lot!) are a joy from start to finish. The sumptuous score is tinged with music hall and cabaret, and strongly flavoured with the musicality and verbal sophistication of Stephen Sondheim. It’s magnificent.
An exhilarating entertainment, and the RSC’s best musical since Matilda, the show merits an extended run – or a transfer to London, perhaps to the ‘other’ Stratford and Littlewood’s East End theatre itself.