‘Marrying pathos with panache’, ‘Miss Littlewood’ is a sparkling, joyful production with moments of real poignancy. Sam Kenyon’s creation is a must-see moving tribute to the immense talent of Miss Joan Littlewood.

It is not often an audience is treated to such a marvellous production – yet its simply that, a treat, to witness this musical. Sam Kenyon has created a really special production aimed at anyone who loves the theatre. ‘Miss Littlewood’ not only pays tribute to the remarkable Joan Littlewood, it lives and breathes all that she stood for. This musical is a triumph, with clever, innovate staging and storytelling that truly brings her multi-faceted character to life.

As the show opens, you feel as if you have been transported back to another time – supported by Designer Tom Piper’s inclusion of an olde-worlde proscenium arch on stage. This makes the space reminiscent of a music hall and is complemented by Kenyon’s score which evokes all the wit and charm of songs performed by artists like Marie Lloyd, Dan Leno and countless others. Music halls themselves were universally popular, with the entertainment completely devoid of airs and graces and filled with people from all walks of life. You can be fairly certain that Littlewood; a woman who passionately wanted to bring theatre to the masses, would have thoroughly approved of the accessibility to the arts that music halls provided. So it feels wholly appropriate that a production about her uses design, its score and clever staging to create a piece that evokes the atmosphere of such a venue.

“Why do we hear so much about unremarkable men and frankly so little about remarkable women?”

Clare Burt’s incarnation of Joan asks this near the start of the first act, which receives enthusiastic applause from an audience in agreement. What a great question. Remarkable women are so often left out of the narrative and it felt so fitting to see women at the forefront of this production. It is refreshing but unfortunately still feels ‘remarkable’ to see a largely female ensemble. All are immensely talented and quite obviously chosen on their own individual merits to bring Joan’s story to life. Seven different actresses play Joan at the different stages of her life, with Clare Burt as the older Joan who directs her own life story as it plays out to an engrossed crowd. Burt includes members of the audience and halts the production in a playful way to assert her directorial prowess. This decision may seem inspired but is actually obvious. How could you not have one of the most influential directors of the 20th century not direct her own life? After all, it’s probably well and truly what Joan Littlewood would have wanted.

Littlewood’s values are laid bare by Kenyon. In particular, the production hammers home her belief in the inclusivity and accessibility of theatre. For instance, in Act Two the line ‘To change a character you simply change your hat’, is a principle that I recall and must still be taught to budding drama students today It’s simple, cheap and requires the audience to use their imagination. It’s fantastic to see ‘Oh What a Lovely War’ in particular featured as I’m sure many students up and down the country have studied Littlewood’s production. Speaking from personal experience, I could almost hear my own drama teacher; a Littlewood devotee, shouting her own mantra based on Littlewood’s principles,‘SHOW DON’T TELL’ at me. Her techniques have been so influential and integral to the shaping of modern theatrical practice. Without her, the theatre would probably be very different today, perhaps still full of uninspiring interpretations such as what we see in Act One from Tam Williams’s hilarious John Gielgud. By featuring Joan’s visit to see Gielgud’s interpretation of Macbeth, we see where Joan’s disillusionment with the theatre kicked in, but ultimately also get to see her change it forever during her wildly successful residency at Stratford East.

Intentional or not, it would take a heart of stone not to be moved by Emily Johnstone’s portrayal of a young Barbara Windsor. Perhaps it’s after hearing the recent news that she is suffering with Alzheimer’s disease, but seeing this national treasure portrayed in her prime and at her coquettish, giggly best was gorgeous and exquisitely done. ‘Where Have You Been All My life’ is a real highlight of the second half as it is beautifully sung by Dawn Hope and paired with Johnstone as Barbara, shows her off as a real stand out performer in this ensemble piece.

It must have seemed an impossible task at first for Sam Kenyon to fit such an interesting life into two and a half hours. But despite this, the pace is kept up, although it sometimes feels that some scenes could do with trimming down. Ultimately, ‘Miss Littlewood’ ends poignantly, with Burt’s later life Joan reflecting that “the day that she most misses spending with her Gerry is tomorrow.” This scene is a real – tear jerker and the ending sequence is a fitting tribute to Solomon Israel’s roguish’ Gerry Raffles, the love that marked her life and the ‘only person who ever really knew’ Joan. It is devastating when she says she feels that Gerry would never totally know her as ‘he will never know the me after he passed away’. But it is fitting that the play ends on this sentiment and at the point when Joan lost her creative spark, ultimately refusing to direct again.

At a time where cuts to arts funding are abundant; referenced to where Burt takes on the role of a member of the Arts Council and says ‘I love this bit, I get to play a wanker’, you can’t help but feel that we need Joan Littlewood back. Or, at the very least, if reincarnation is a pipe dream, someone with the same revolutionary ideas to bring theatre to the masses. This musical is a joy, with clever, innovative staging and storytelling that brings Littlewood’s complex character to life. Anyone who loves theatre will adore this show. I urge you to catch it if you can.

★★★★

Miss Littlewood is on at the RSC’s Swan Theatre in Stratford-upon-Avon until the 4th August. Tickets and other information can be found here.