Review: RSC's fun and affecting tribute to groundbreaking woman of theatre

Sophia Nomvete and Clare Burt as Joan and Joan Littlewood
Sophia Nomvete and Clare Burt as Joan and Joan Littlewood

Peter Ormerod reviews Miss Littlewood, presented by the RSC at the Swan Theatre, Stratford

This bright and vivacious new musical tells the remarkable story of the Joan Littlewood, who revolutionised British drama and would surely be dismayed at the current state of the nation’s theatre. The problems Littlewood railed against - chiefly snobbery and conservatism - are still all too prevalent. Here she is paid affecting and affectionate tribute in a production directed by Erica Whyman with great imagination, wit and charm, but somewhat lacking the working-class grit and edge Littlewood championed.

Littlewood is best known for setting the Theatre Workshop in the East End of London. Throughout the 1940s, ‘50s and ‘60s, it pioneered what to British audiences were radical forms of theatre, created by people previously shunned by the theatrical establishment, culminating in 1963 with the groundbreaking Oh What a Lovely War. She is played here in different stages of her life by an assortment of actors, with Clare Burt effectively playing her ghost, looking on and directing matters.

On its own terms, it is quite glorious, with Sam Kenyon’s score replete with tremendous tunes and performed with sharpness and vigour. The ensemble cast excel in a range of roles, and Littlewood’s loner sensibility is depicted with intelligence. It is hard however to escape the sense that Littlewood herself might have approached this show quite differently, and that she is needed now as much as ever.

* Miss Littlewood runs until August 4. Visit www.rsc.org.uk/miss-littlewood/tickets to book.