The RSC’s latest musical venture is diving into the life of Joan Littlewood, a woman who revolutionised 20th-century theatre. Miss Littlewood is based on her life story, it tells the tale of her life from the East End to the West End.
I spoke to Sam Kenyon, who wrote the book, music and lyrics for this new production. “I first met a guy in Nottingham in 2005, we were both working on a completely unrelated show and he talked to me about a woman named Joan Littlewood, who I’d never heard of at the time,” Sam explained. “He talked about her with tremendous passion and gratitude. I became so fascinated by the way he would talk about Joan, that I went to buy her autobiography.
“After reading a little then putting it back down, one January I rediscovered it. My January’s often involve not having any money, feeling a bit sorry for myself in terms of my career and not having any work or prospects. So what I found is that rather than deciding to give up and get a regular job, what I’ve learnt is in that lull is an opportunity for doing some reading or being creative in a slightly different way.” Sam quickly became enthralled by her story and began to realise it would really work as a production.
“I’d always wondered what that moment was when Andrew Lloyd Webber said ‘I’m going to write a musical about Eva Peron’ or Stephen Sondheim said he would write a show about Gypsy Rose Lee, and I guess now I know.”
Joan Littlewood had an extraordinary career. Born in 1914 in South London, she first formed Theatre of Action in 1934 and then Theatre Union in the late 30s. Theatre Workshop was formed in Manchester in 1945 which toured across the UK before settling at the Theatre Royal Stratford East. She was a director that changed the face of British theatre because of her passion for new writers and the way she broadened classic repertoire.
When asking Sam to describe Joan Littlewood he responded: “That’s impossible.” He explained how he has seven women playing Joan in the show and that is exactly how he’d sum her up. “She’s impossible to pin down and completely changeable dependent on the time of day or time of year,” he said. “I was lucky enough to chat to women who knew her. If you know Joan or Joan’s work, what you know is the work she did post 1957 when she took over Stratford East but in terms of accessing her as a woman and a person I got twenty more years of information about her as a person. She came across as a maddening but incredibly generous aunt.”
First approaching the show Sam both interviewed various people in Joan’s life and made notes on her own autobiography. “People really gave me their time to talk about this woman because of some passion they felt for her,” he said. “That might have been frustration or anger alongside love. I wanted to give vent to all of these emotions and attachments in their different forms.”
This production has been a long time coming, Sam has been working on the idea for over 5 years now and after workshopping it at the RSC, Erica Whyman was keen to put it on. “I think if you knew Joan, you love her and revere her,” he said. “I am keen to know why we know of so many unremarkable men but so few remarkable women. I don’t know the answer to that, but that ability to exile women from our history I find completely revolting. So I wanted to create a show that honours the emotion of the people who were talking about her.”
When asking Sam why he decided it was best created as a musical as opposed to a play, he said: “Joan is really helpful anytime I have any problems, I look at her book or look at quotes from her and she once said of theatre ‘there must always be music and it must always be live’. I think there is a very fashionable snobbery against musicals that I just find ignorant. As a musical theatre writer, I am always thinking about how music conveys narrative, emotion and drama.”
Having always been a writer of music and lyrics, Sam wanted to challenge himself to write the book for the show too. “It draws on all sorts of different forms of theatre, both plays and musicals. Whatever innovations or playfulness I was deploying; it needed to have a way of being narrative,” he said.
The RSC are renowned for their classic Shakespeare productions, but musicals really are their secret weapon. As the creators of the highly successful Matilda the Musical, and original producers of Les Mis, they aren’t shy to musical theatre. “What is interesting about the timing of this musical is that Joan’s attitude to theatre was very much about making sure the community was represented and saw themselves on stage. The origins of the RSC don’t encompass that, so like many theatres in London back in the day, they would not of had non-RP accents on stage. However, now if you look at Erica’s production of Romeo and Juliet, it feels so authentic because of the regional accents on stage,” he said. “Doing the show at this point of the RSC’s history, you see that so many of Joan’s principles are being acted out.”
Not to mention this the first time the RSC has done a musical in their Swan Theatre. “It’s so much more intimate, which is incredibly exciting,” Sam explained. “When Peter Hall set up the RSC, new writing was at the heart of his plan, so it is absolutely honouring those original intentions but taking in so many new elements of the changing landscape of theatre at the same time.”
I wanted to know what Sam thought Joan herself would think of his production. “Luckily she will never see it,” he laughed. “I thought I’d love to write something she wouldn’t hate. I think what has changed in that endeavour is that people who knew her have come to see the show and told me I’ve really captured something of her. That to me is the greatest compliment I could ever receive, in my distance from Joan I managed to portray even a glimpse of what she made people feel about themselves, and that is just tremendous.”
Miss Littlewood is on in the Swan Theatre at the RSC until the 4th of August, tickets and information can be found online here.
Photo credit: Topher Mcgrillis