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Posts Tagged ‘Shelagh Delaney’

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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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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