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Miss Littlewood review at Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon – ‘irreverent and moving’

Clare Burt in Miss Littlewood at Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon. Photo: Topher McGrillis

Sam Kenyon’s musical tribute to the great Joan Littlewood, radical theatremaker and passionate believer that art should be for everyone, is more than just a love letter – though his affection and respect for all she stood for and achieved is always apparent.

It paints Joan as a woman determined to make art she believed in on her own terms. Unimpressed by the gilt and rigidity of most theatre – Gielgud’s Macbeth was a particular disappointment – and unexcited by her training at RADA, she decided to go her own way, to make work that was authentic and alive.

It also shows her to be a caustic and prickly figure who could be a nightmare to work with. Kenyon leaves us in no doubt that she was remarkable but allows her to be complex and contrary.

Kenyon and director Erica Whyman have hit upon a playful way of demonstrating and celebrating Joan’s approach to making work. So while Clare Burt plays the older Joan, taking the audience on a tour of her life, she also interrupts and interferes, redirecting a scene herself, or calling a halt when the story travels to places she has no wish to revisit.

Over the course of the production Joan is also played by a number of different actors at different periods in her life. Once they’ve donned her navy cap they become Joan until Burt gets fed up with them or we move forwards in time. Aretha Ayeh plays a younger, idealistic Joan and Sandy Foster a more successful Joan, engaged in permanent battle with the “wankers” at the Arts Council.

Though Littlewood’s love of theatre as a communicative tool, an art form capable of shaking up the world, echoes throughout the production, Kenyon also explores the other love of her life: her relationship with Gerry Raffles, whose early death would devastate her. As Raffles, Solomon Israel is rather insubstantial in comparison, but then he’s just one man while Joan is rightfully multitudinous. There’s such a great ache in the way Burt looks at him with the knowledge of what’s to come.

Designer Tom Piper has placed a proscenium on the Swan stage and much fun is had recreating scenes from famous Theatre Workshop productions such as Oh What a Lovely War. Burt is superb and there are great comic performances from Emily Johnstone as Barbara Windsor and Sophia Nomvete as Avis Bunnage.

While it can feel a bit baggy in places, it makes up for this with its irreverent tone and willingness to explore what it is to be a working-class female artist, the barriers that must be surmounted in order to be taken seriously and the compromises that must be made.

The sight of all the Joans together is a delight – a stage dominated by women of all ages still feels like a radical act.

East End hero Joan Littlewood brought back to life at the RSC

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Irreverent and moving musical celebration of the life, loves and legacy of a theatrical radical and trailblazer