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Posts Tagged ‘Joan Littlewood’

Within minutes of it starting, I knew travelling to Stratford (upon Avon) to see this was a good idea. I’m a big fan of Joan Littlewood, even though I never saw any of her work. When my Tardis arrives, one of my first journeys will be back to the late 50’s / early 60’s to visit her Theatre Workshop at the Theatre Royal in Stratford (East London). She revolutionised British theatre as much as people like Peter’s Brook and Hall, but isn’t recognised as much, though she does now have a statue outside Stratford East.

Writer Sam Kenyon uses seven Joan’s to tell her story, with the wonderful Clare Burt as Joan the narrator, encouraging and instructing the others to pass the baton, her trademark cap, to the next as she ages. It briefly covers her arrival in the world, school, an early trip to Paris and RADA, before political theatre in the North West, where she meets and marries future folk royalty Ewan MacColl (then Jimmie Miller). The whole of the second half covers the Theatre Workshop period in Stratford East, using the development of productions like A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be and Oh What A Lovely War to propel the story forward.

It’s warts and all, so though it’s a homage, it shows the negative too. Along the way we meet Victor Spinetti, Barbara Windsor, Shelagh Delaney, Lionel Bart, Hal Prince (that collaboration was new to me!), Murray Melvin (whose insight Kenyon benefited from, and who was in the audience at this performance) and John Gielgud playing Macbeth! All of these are played by the ensemble regardless of age, sex or race. Her reciprocal love of Gerry Raffles shines through.

Designer Tom Piper has put a gold proscenium arch and red velvet curtains at the back of the apron stage, much like Stratford East, above which there’s a strip of screen on which projections signpost places and productions, with the band in the gallery above that. There’s an anarchic, playful quality to Erica Whyman’s production which seems entirely in keeping with the story. It feels like it’s being created as we watch, in the same way Joan’s shows were developed. It isn’t perfect, but for the first production of someone’s second musical, it’s impressive.

In addition to Clare Burt as Joan and Solomon Israel as Gerry Raffles, an ensemble of ten play the other five Joan’s and more than thirty other roles. Sophie Nomvete and Emily Johnstone give great turns as Avis Bunnage and Barbara Windsor respectively. They also play two of the Joan’s, receiving / passing the baton (cap) from / to Aretha Ayeh, Sandy Foster, Amanda Hadingue and Dawn Hope, all excellent. I felt for Tam Williams, playing Murray Melvin with the man himself just feet away; he also gets give us Gielgud’s Macbeth!

Well worth the trip to Stratford, hopefully to have a life beyond The Swan.

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This was the fifth of five shows for which Lionel Bart was the sole composer and lyricist over a six year period in the early sixties, the most famous of which was of course Oliver. I’ve seen the others, though they are rarely put on, and though they’re not as good as his masterpiece, they are decent populist fare and they did well at the time. This last one was a troubled show which the director, his friend and mentor Joan Littlewood, walked out of before its opening. Bert Shevelove (book writer of Sondheim’s A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum) came to the rescue, but he couldn’t. The opening night was a fiasco and the show a critical and commercial flop (closing early, allowing one of it’s stars, Ronnie Corbett, to take a job on the Frost Report. It’s other stars included Barbara Windsor, Bernard Bresslaw and Long John Baldry!). The fact Bart had added an LSD habit to his heavy drinking may have something to do with it. I’m not sure it’s been seen in London since; this Bart fan certainly hasn’t seen it.

There’s a new book by Guildford School of Acting’s Julian Woolford, commissioned by the Bart estate ten years ago and first performed at GSD, and the music has been adapted by Richard John, but I’m not sure what that means. It doesn’t breathe new life into the story of Robin Hood, who’s lost his twang, hence the title, but the production does, by effectively sending itself, and musical theatre, up in a bawdy innuendo-laden romp. There are lots of quotations from and references to other musicals – Les Mis, Phantom, Sweeney Todd, Into the Woods, Legally Blonde, Wicked etc., a running joke where character Alan-A-Dale is trying to write a song called Living Doll (one of Bart’s, of course), somewhat like the title character in a much later musical Blondel, set in the Crusades with King Richard at the same time as this in Britain featuring his brother, and a lot of jazz hands choreography.

Whatever you think of the show, panto in my case, you have to admire the energy and enthusiasm of its young cast, under Bryan Hodgson’s direction, who give it their all and whose fun is infectious. After the first few minutes, I wasn’t expecting a fun night, but they swept me away and it was.

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Forty years before Stephen Sondheim turned up in a pie shop in Tooting, he went to see Christopher Bond’s play Sweeney Todd at the Theatre Royal Stratford East (I like to think he met another of my theatrical hero’s, Joan Littlewood, still their AD at the time) and so his musical Sweeney Todd was born. Twelve years later I went to the Half Moon Theatre in Stepney Green, three miles down the road,  where Christopher Bond, then their AD, was returning the compliment by directing Sondheim’s musical adaptation. That was my first Sweeney. Thirty-one years later I’m at Stratford East for my 21st performance / 15th production of the show by the students of the Royal Academy of Music, six years after I was at the RAM for the presentation of Mr. Sondheim’s honorary doctorate. I love all these connections!

They’ve made a great job of it too, in a more contemporary and very dark production by Michael Fentimam. The two-tier set allows a barber shop above the pie shop, though they haven’t included traps for the bodies. The oven is under the stage, which makes for dramatic plunges of ghostly walking bodies. There’s a lot of blood. The chorus are sometimes in blood-splattered white gowns, sometimes in retro contemporary dress, always in dark glasses. I wasn’t convinced by the introduction of a child, presumably to show Sweeney had some compassion. The eight-piece band under Torquil Munro sounded superb.

Elissa Churchill as Mrs Lovett started on a high with The Worst Pies in London and stayed there through A Little Priest, God That’s Good, By the Sea and her duet with Brian Raftery’s Tobias, Not While I’m Around, relishing every word of Sondheim’s brilliant lyrics; a terrific performance. Lawrence Smith was an excellent Sweeney, with the right mix of menace and mania, an appropriate contrast to Mrs L. Ruben Van keer was a superb Anthony, singing Joanna beautifully and passionately. There’s also a delightfully flamboyant Pirelli from Fransisco del Solar. It’s a fine ensemble; the class of 2016 are as good as any I’ve seen at RAM.

Rags was such a commercial flop on Broadway that I’m not sure it’s ever had a UK professional production. I’ve only seen another conservatoire production, at Guildhall School of Music & Drama, three years ago (https://garethjames.wordpress.com/2013/07/09/rags-at-guildhall-school-of-music-drama) so RAM at Stratford East is an opportunity for a second look at a show from the man who wrote the book of Fiddler on the Roof, the man who wrote the music for Annie and the man who did the music & lyrics for Godspell and Wicked!

The story of East European Jewish immigrants in New York City, exploited in the rag trade sweatshops, suits musical theatre. The ragtime infused score, with East European Jewish influences, sounds even better second time around, and it’s played beautifully by an orchestra twice the size of the Sweeney band, under Caroline Humphris. The vocal standards are high too, with Julia Lissel as Rebecca and Victoria Blackburn as Bella sounding particularly gorgeous. In addition to these two excellent female leads there are fine acting performances from Neil Canfer as Avram and Oliver Marshall as Ben.

I liked the idea of a back wall of suitcases and trunks and suitcases carried by the migrants used to create all of the props, but in practice it did make Hannah Chissick’s production seem a bit cramped. I wasn’t convinced by young David played by a six-foot-something actor with puppet, I’m afraid! The finale introducing a new wave of migrants was an inspired idea and a moving conclusion.

Both shows provided a wonderful showcase for thirty-two performers and twenty-five musicians about to launch their musical theatre careers. That’s a lot of talent!

 

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When I went to see the workshop of this new adaptation of Joan Littlewood / Frank Norman / Lionel Bart’s 1959 show, I enjoyed it very much but never expected it to turn out this good. Elliot Davies has added songs like Do You Mind? and Living Doll from the Lional Bart ‘songbook’ to turn the show from a play-with-music into a fully fledged musical – and it works very well indeed.

We’re in a seedy Soho club in the 50’s with loveable rogues and prostitutes. It centres on club owner Fred and his ex-brass girlfriend Lil and pimp Tosher and his working girls Betty, Brenda & Margaret. Bent copper PC Collins pays regular visits to collect his cut and Paddy becomes a fixture when he wins half the club in a game of cards. Meatface (offstage) presents their greatest threat. Innocent homeless Rosie gets taken in and adopted by the girls, exploited by Tosher and hurt by Meatface. Petty criminal Red Hot takes refuge on release from prison. Outrageously camp Horace is invited in to give them a makeover and posh Percy & even posher Myrtle come to the subsequent re-opening. We love them all (well, apart from Meatface, obviously).

Writer Frank Norman was from this world, so the story, characters and situations ooze authenticity, albeit a little caricatured and romanticised. William Dudley (where has he been recently?) has created a brilliantly authentic club to match, with clever projections onto the skylights. Terry Johnson’s staging and Nathan M Wright’s choreography make it all sparkle. Above all, though, it’s the perfect casting that is probably its greatest success. I’ve only seen East Ender Jessie Wallace in Rent; here’s she’s so much more at home as Lil, with a surprisingly good voice. Mark Arden couldn’t look more the part if he had the best make-up and prosthetics money can buy; he’s the embodiment of Fred. I’ve admired Suzie Chard for a while and it’s great to see her commanding the stage and sometimes stealing the show as Betty. You love to hate but can’t help loving Stefan Booth’s Tosher and Sarah Middelton’s Rosie melts your heart with her gorgeous voice. There’s are terrific cameos from Christopher Ryan as Red Hot (there’s a delicious moment when he’s singing along to Living Doll, famously revived by The Young Ones – of which he was one – with Cliff Richard for Comic Relief) and Ryan Molloy as camp designer Horace who sweeps in and sweeps you away.

Of course, we’re back where it started at the Theatre Royal Stratford East where it fits like a glove, proving a right old East End knees-up. A treat.

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When I booked for this months ago, I wasn’t expecting the world to be on the brink of yet another conflict in Ukraine. One hundred years on from the events depicted here and we’re still confronted with war on a daily basis. This timely and welcome revival also commemorates 100 years since the birth of its co-creator Joan Littlewood and 50 years since its ground-breaking first production, back where it all started at ‘a people’s theatre’ where it belongs.

It still winds up Michael Gove (something this production cheekily but appropriately recognises) so I can imagine the ‘conservative’ reaction in 1963. Presenting the First World War from the perspective of ordinary soldiers and making explicit how many millions of lives were lost as ‘a musical entertainment’ packs as much of a punch today as it must have done then. We’re told much of the true history of the war from the assassination which triggered it, interspersed with the satirical songs which would have been heard during it. Laughter pierced with moments of disbelief, horror and anger at how this was allowed to happen.

Terry Johnson’s production respects it’s heritage, most importantly the form of the Pierrot show. There’s an anarchic, ramshackle feel to it, particularly at the start and partly because of Lez Brotherston’s designs, but it achieves the right balance of entertainment and education / re-education. It zips along, changing from laughter to shock on the turn of an actor’s head. The audience are engaged and involved, which emphasises the populist nature underlying the piece.

I was delighted to learn that it is now a popular show to be performed in schools (up yours, Gove) because it tells a true story but also proves the power of theatre, something emphasised in original cast member Murray Melvin’s moving programme note recalling the show’s reception in Paris, which somewhat embarrassingly brought me to tears on the tube on the way home!

A fitting tribute to its subject and its creators and still a wake-up call 50 years on.

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On Thursday 20th February, I appear to have seen a different show than the one reviewed by the critics. None of them mentioned that Lesley Sharp overacts mercilessly, turning Helen into a caricature of the person Shelagh Delaney wrote, with Kate O’Flynn coming dangerously close to challenging her for the OTT title as the play progressed. She has either diverted from Bijan Sheibani’s direction (the same appeared to happen when I saw The Rise & Fall of Little Voice) or Shebani has decided to send up a 50’s British classic. Frankly, I thought it was a travesty unworthy of a National stage. Carry On Up North.

Written by a very young Delaney in 1958 and produced and directed by Joan Littlewood at the Theatre Royal Stratford East, this was as much of a landmark show as John Osborne’s Look Back in Anger. Brassy barmaid Helen is a shit mother, more interested in her men than her daughter Jo, who is perilously close to following in her footsteps. Helen marries Peter and leaves Jo, now pregnant by a black sailor, to fend for herself in their seedy flat. Art student Geoff befriends Jo and moves in to look after her, until Helen returns professing maternal feelings to hide the fact that Peter has thrown her out.

Hildegard Bechtler’s enormous set is a bit over-engineered for a five-hander virtually set in one room, but it looks authentic. The men appear to be in a different play, with more restrained performances in keeping with the period location and story, particularly Harry Hepple who hits the spot perfectly with his interpretation of Geoff in the second half. If Sharp and O’Flynn were performing as Sheibani intended, this disrespects the memory of both Delaney and Littlewood; if they have veered away from his intentions, it’s just as disrespectful but also unprofessional.

I’ve been disappointed by Sheibani’s work at the NT before – Our Class, Greenland, Damned for Despair – and I’m beginning to wonder why he warrants such prominence in the NT programming. I think I will have to shall steer clear in future because I’m not sure I can stomach such misguided directorial arrogance which Is common at the opera (where they don’t really care what dead composers intended) but less so at the theatre. The mute applause last night suggested I’m not alone.

You have been warned!

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I love the Theatre Royal Stratford East and I love its new tag line ‘A People’s Theatre’ because it is – and this play is in the right home. A BIG play; an ambitious, brave, epic, sprawling, passionate, angry, funny drama which wears its heart on its sleeve. It can best be summed up by Philip Larkin’s most famous poem ‘they fuck you up, your mum and dad’. In this case, sometimes literally!

The four Prospect boys are the present generation of a south London dynasty of Irish descent, two of whom are in relationships with sisters of West Indian descent. The play centres on professional footballer and eldest boy Matthew’s return from rehab, which he apparently entered to avoid a drug test (nine months earlier!). His youngest brother has converted to Islam after imprisonment at an impressionable age. Son number three is pursuing a pre-op tranny. Son number two seems to be the normal one, married with twin girls, until the skeletons in his cupboard, courtesy of his wife, come out later. Mother Bridie is devoted to her boys and you can’t help but love her – well, at first…..

It takes a while to get into the time shifts as we move back and forth to learn the sources and causes of the family’s dysfunctionality, and indeed of the family of the Lockwood girls who’ve ‘married’ into this. The characters are larger than life and the dialogue is as sharp as a knife. There is never a dull moment as you move from laughter to shock and back again on the emergence of a new fact or the use of a wisecrack. You can forgive the lurches into implausibility, melodrama and excess because it presents you with a dramatic feast the equivalent of an entire 13-part TV series in one evening.

Staged in front of mirrored walls (there’s no hiding place) its fast-moving high energy stuff with a complete set of stunning performances. All four Prospect boys (in order, Matthew Mark Luke & John!) are brilliantly cast and played by James Farrar, Frankie Fitzgerald, Jamie Nichols & Gavin McClusky. Louise Jameson is outstanding as the matriarch. Sasha Frost, Dominique Moore, Jennifer Daley & Ashley Campbell are all superb as the boys respective wives and lovers.

I’m not sure why it has taken me eight years, since Bashment at the same venue (http://www.whatsonstage.com/tickets/theatre//L2001081771/.html – mine is the top review!)  to see another play by Rikki Beadle-Blair, but I hope it won’t be another eight before the next. I said then, and will say again – Joan Littlewood would be proud. You’ll have to accept the language and you’ll have to stomach some difficult subject matter, but if you can and you do, you will be richly rewarded.

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