Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – until 4 August 2018
Theatre owes a lot to Joan Littlewood: daughter of East End larkiness, music hall jangle and tough 1930s socialism; idealist and bully, stridingly inventive, a populist elitist (“I want only the truly disenfranchised to grace our stage”). Any theatre-maker now who chucks out the scenery, forces a cast to create the script, indicates change of character with a hat, revels in actors using their own accent and veers from earthiness to fantasy and back to make a point – every one of them is nodding to her legacy.
She wrote her own story, in every sense; some swashbuckling anecdotes raise an eyebrow, but her values and unshakeable self-confidence blew a breeze through the polite, Lord-Chamberlain-ed theatre of her beginnings. She was disgusted even at school when the Porter in Macbeth had the same accent as the King and left RADA scorning to graduate with a “West End Letter”, remarking that all you learnt there was to drink fake sherry while moving downstage to a better sightline. She championed Behan and Shelagh Delaney, and Barbara Windsor too; she transferred her work up West albeit with disgust at it being “pickled” in this way while the BBC “plundered her casts”.
All this lies before us in the Swan, and it is a joy to have Greg Doran’s RSC hosting a musical about her: itself a debut by the composer Sam Kenyon creating book, music and lyrics, and with a cast full of RSC first-timers including Clare Burt as Joan herself.
At least, as the leading Joan: observing, meta-theatrically directing the action while six others portray her in different times or different moods. Particularly apposite is the fact that some of the Joans are black women: when RADA speaks patronisingly of the pupil’s “predicament” – meaning Joan’s illegitimacy and roughness – there is a dry topicality, in this age of concern about diversity in the profession, that the line is addressed to Aretha Ayeh.
It is skilfully woven, and Kenyon shows a mastery of styles from silent-movie tinkling to lush waltzes, big belting numbers, Sondheim style jerks and mellow agit-prop folk (naturally we meet Ewan MacColl, formerly Jimmie Miller of the Theatre of Action, and there is a fabulous moment when he walks out and Joan accuses him of just being jealous of young Shelagh Delaney’s new fame) .
The second act is tighter and better than the first, with a stunning evocation of the creation of O What A Lovely War, but Joan’s story rolls through always with both theatrical panache and decent human poignancy: her Gerry Raffles, debonair and devoted and unfaithful, is Solomon Israel. Emily Johnstone gives us a storming display as Barbara Windsor: though I was sorry not to have the famous moment when at her audition Joan ordered her to sit on her hands and abandon the vaudeville gestures to make the song tell its own story.
The period after Raffles’ death and Joan’s retirement when “Nothing much happened” is given us with a clever, sharp shrug of brevity. It was, as she would have wished, the shows that mattered. The art. Not a lot of “bloody acting”. In the end, she stands before us Joan Alone once more. Herself.