Review: Miss Littlewood (Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon)

The new musical based on the iconic director Joan Littlewood opens in Stratford

The company of Miss Littlewood
The company of Miss Littlewood
© RSC, photo by Topher McGrillis

Like Fanny Brice, Eva Peron and Gypsy Rose, the life of leftfield revolutionary British theatre director Joan Littlewood has been turned into a fun-filled, witty new musical.

In Sam Kenyon's cleverly structured biographical debut show for the RSC, Joan directs the story of her own life with several actors playing different stages.

Clare Burt, as older charismatic Joan, asks: "Why do we know about so many unremarkable men and so few remarkable women?" Redressing the balance, she takes us on a tour of several headline chapters opening with her own illegitimate birth in 1914 to an absent father in Stockwell, south London, who sent a box of Williams' pears every birthday until she was 16.

Hilariously, Greg Barnett as Joan's grandfather Robert, turns on an unsuspecting gentleman in the front row to play her dad for a little on-the-spot kitchen-sink drama improv. "You there, I want a word with you". "Don't panic darling, you'll find the script under your seat," Burt's Joan huskily reassures him.

Clare Burt hands over the radical director's trademark cap to Emily Johnstone, Aretha Ayeh, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue, Dawn Hope, and Sophia Nomvete, as each superbly takes on another aspect of her multi-faceted character.

"Unimpressed and depressed" by Sir John Gielgud's Macbeth at the age of 13 or 14, and a bourgeois RADA, where she won a scholarship, Littlewood concentrated on plays about the working class and disenfranchised, placing emphasis on regional accents, the political (Hiroshima) and theatrical economy.

Lovingly researched, Erica Whyman's rich, colour-blind production feels intimate, joyous and touching tracing Littlewood's ups, downs and love affairs with Jimmie Miller, "Fun Palace" architect Cedric Price and producer Gerry Raffles, the one who knew her best.

True it does verge on the immoderately reverential, only hinting at the darker side of Littlewood's personality – described by actors as "our mentor and tormentor". But you do walk away with real insight into how she irrevocably shook up British theatre for the better, championing the work of new writers like Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney.

Her Theatre Workshop at the other Stratford – Theatre Royal Stratford East – had huge hits with Oh, What A Lovely War!, A Taste of Honey and The Hostage despite constant clashes over funding with the Arts Council.

Evocative of the 1950s and '60s, when Joan was in her heyday, Tom Piper's vintage styling recreates the richness of the gilded vaudeville theatre with its red velvet curtains, funky retro phones and vibrant snippets from their original productions.

During a couple of catchy numbers, I felt the hairs stand on end at the back of my neck – as when I watched Tim Minchin and Dennis Kelly's Matilda for the first time.

There are numerous standout performances by an exuberant cast, not least Nomvete's energetic turn as vivacious "posh Northerner", Avis Bunnage, whose song In Stratford East irreverently pokes fun at RP pronunciation and sets The Swan alive. Johnstone is a delightfully diva-esque Barbara Windsor, casually dropping her coat into the laps of members of the audience.

If like me, you have a penchant for quirky musicals, this is an anarchic delight in the style of Miss Littlewood herself.