August 4: Miss Littlewood

Amanda Ayeh as Joan 2, Amanda Hadingue as Nick, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Amanda Ayeh as Joan 2, Amanda Hadingue as Nick, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Joan Littlewood was a theatre innovator who had a huge influence on how theatre is made. A tough cockney who  quit RADA (Royal Academy of Dramatic Art)and walked from London to Manchester, she joined with young Jimmy Miller (later AKA Ewan McColl) in 1933 to do agitprop anti-Nazi street theatre. Together with Gerry Raffles, all-round technical fixer-upper, they created an ensemble approach to theatre that revolutionized theatre practice. After the war, the company, now called Theatre Workshop, survived hand-to-mouth and unsubsidized, without a permanent home base. In 1953, Gerry Raffles found a derelict theatre in East London, Theatre Royal Stratford East. The company scrubbed it up and moved in, creating new work and a new way of working, until a series of hits, transferred to the West End, brought international recognition: The Quare Fellow and The Hostage by Brendan Behan, A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be, Sparrers Can’t Sing. The biggest hit of all was Oh What a Lovely War (1963), which told the frightful story of the First World War using a combination of clown show, documentary segments, projections, and songs from the barracks and the music hall, all deftly crafted and arranged into a riveting experience in the theatre.

Miss Littlewood, a musical by Sam Kenyon, tells the story. Or rather, stories: the making of a theatre company, the life of Joan, the Joan and Gerry love story, and step-by-step what happened. Sam Kenyon came late to the party, having had no direct experience of Theatre Workshop, but had the help of Murray Melvin, a company member in the later years. He also had Joan’s Book, Joan’s autobiography, which (by the way) is a terrific read.

Miss Littlewood, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Miss Littlewood, Photo by Topher McGrillis

Toronto’s theatrical innovator, George Luscombe, was in the company in its earlier days, when the techniques were all being worked out. He brought the Littlewood approach to his company, Toronto Theatre Workshop, with a distinguished history of shows: Hey Rube, Mr. Bones, Ten Lost Years, Ain’t Lookin’ and lots more. I was in TWP and co-wrote a play with George, The Wobbly. My own theatre work has been in the Littlewood/Luscombe tradition.

So I had great incentive to see this show. Two days after we landed in London, we scooted up to Stratford-upon-Avon for the production’s last day.

Bottom line: it was worth it. MIss Littlewood was lively, with catchy songs of the right flavour, navigating its way through all the stories gracefully. Given that it wasn’t an ensemble production, but a musical about an ensemble, it managed to put across the feel of group creation. The most significant convention was having members of the company take turns playing Joan in the phases of her life — women black and white, skinny and solid. It was quite striking how the core of Joan was carried through all the transitions.

Standing beside me (yes, standing room again) was a woman who taught English and Drama, and was responsible for staging very ambitious productions (Les Miz). She had returned to see it a second time, bringing her mother. Joan continues to inspire, and Miss Littlewood is worthy of its subject.

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