Review – Miss Littlewood, Royal Shakespeare Company at the Swan Theatre, Stratford-upon-Avon, 3rd July 2018

Miss LittlewoodThere was a time in the 60s and 70s when you couldn’t read anything to do with drama without seeing Joan Littlewood’s name somewhere in the influences. Today she’s largely forgotten – probably because, in retrospect, although she was a larger than life character, she wasn’t actually associated with that many memorable productions that have stood the test of time. She’s most famous for creating the Theatre Workshop at Stratford East, but people don’t tend to remember company names or buildings.

Daisy Badger as Rosalie, Claire Burt as JoanOh What A Lovely War, of course, remains her stand-out show. She worked with Lionel Bart on Fings Aint Wot They Used T’Be. She encouraged (and largely re-wrote) the young Shelagh Delaney to create A Taste of Honey. She collaborated with Brendan Behan (when he was sober) to produce The Quare Fellow and The Hostage. But, as the very charming penultimate song in Sam Kenyon’s musical dedicated to the life and works of Joan Littlewood states, Nothing Much Happened After That. And the memories of Miss Littlewood are now well and truly faded. Perfect timing, then, for a look back at her life.

Oh What A Lovely WarLet me start by saying that the press night audience absolutely adored the show. Lots of laughter, high applause levels and about a 30% standing ovation at the end. I, too, really wanted to love this show. Its subject has been too long ignored, and when you flip through the programme to discover that real-life people like Shelagh Delaney, Barbara Windsor, Lionel Bart, Victor Spinetti are actually featured in the show, it captures your imagination and makes you itch for something special. And whilst there are some elements that are absolutely fantastic, there are other aspects which, for me, turned me into something of a grumpy curmudgeon by the end.

The CompanyIt’s a show that gives with one hand, but then takes with the other. Take the structure; a perfect recreation of a Brechtian dream, with the character of Joan Littlewood both acting in, and narrating through, the entire show; introducing individual scenes with their scene number, and telling us in advance what would take place during the scene. Giving the role of Joan to seven different performers deliberately makes it virtually impossible to identify with her. The majority of the songs don’t evolve organically, instead they are artificially announced and plonked in place, which not only distances us from the story but distances us from the notion that this is, in fact, a musical. The show is also happening right here, right now; on the stage of the Swan Theatre, with you the audience and them the cast. There’s no fourth wall, it’s in a permanent state of demolition, as Joan argues the toss with us about the play itself; walking out at a bit she doesn’t like, telling members of the cast that they’d better watch out or else she’d sack them, that’s the kind of edgy presentation that dominates this show. Brecht was known for his Marxist theories and anti-bourgeois stance – much like Joan Littlewood herself, who actually directed and appeared in his Mother Courage and her Children – so, for me, this structure was absolutely perfect to represent her.

Solomon Israel as Gerry and all the JoansBut with the rough comes the smooth. Part of the distancing effect of having seven Joans is that it is at times very hard to follow; particularly as the various actors all have other roles too and sometimes it’s hard to work out which of those roles they are performing. That’s great for a distancing effect, but lousy for understanding a show. I appreciate why they chose to split the role like that; the programme notes include a quote from Murray Melvin (who was in A Taste of Honey, Oh What A Lovely War AND is a character in Miss Littlewood), regarding the seven Joans saying: “thank God for that[…] when people ask what she was like, you want to ask, “which one”?” I’ve seen a production of The Tempest that featured six Ariels (it got a better reception, ho ho – geddit?) but seven Joans just becomes rather messy in the end. It did work well, however, in the scene where they were all surrounding Gerry Raffles in his sick bed.

Greg Barnett as Jimmie Miller, Dawn Hope and Amanda Hadingue as Archie HardingAh yes, Gerry Raffles. Ay, there’s the rub. Given that Joan Littlewood was a strong woman, a firebrand, a female innovator in a man’s world, what a shame that so much of her story had to be told through the rose-tinted glasses of her love for a man. “We know about so many unremarkable men, and so few remarkable women” says Joan, early in the play, to a rousing cheer from the audience. But then they go and spend so much time in this play on, frankly, an unremarkable man! Mrs Chrisparkle believes, and I concur, that this was a slap in the face for the sisterhood and an opportunity missed. It also makes so little sense. Throughout the early part of the show, Gerry’s first appearance is being anticipated, both by Joan herselves, and Rosalie (her assistant? director? stage manager? I was never sure). Then at the end his passing is lamented; but we never see why he had such an effect on her. He was a philanderer; there was no particular physical chemistry with Joan; to me he seemed no more than any other of her (basically unpaid) employees. I wasn’t convinced.

Sophia Nomvete as Joan and Solomon Israel as GerryHere’s another rough with the smooth element: it’s actually, for the most part, a pretty funny script, with some very knowing moments, especially between Joan and the audience. It starts off with more than a nod to Richard Bean’s One Man Two Guvnors, with not only a member of the audience taking a role but also a plant in the audience. Then there are several “in” jokes about acting – the show takes place in Stratford (but not this Stratford); Rosalie takes Oscar Wilde’s great line from The Importance of Being Earnest about “all women become like their mothers, that is their tragedy; no man does, and that is his” and replaces it with references to actors and directors; and finally Joan gets her claws into Arts Council officials, describing them as wankers. But I can’t help but think that, knowing Joan Littlewood’s passion for the democratisation of the theatre, and her striving to making it a place where everyone is welcome and not just the privileged few, this “in-joke” style is completely inappropriate.

The Company in full swingHowever, on the good side, what the play does achieve is a great insight into her collaborative style; most effectively portrayed in the scene where Barbara Windsor wants to walk out of Oh What A Lovely War and Joan deftly manipulates her back in; and also the scene where Jimmie Miller (later Ewan MacColl) and Howard Goorney almost come to fisticuffs and Joan deconstructs their fight direction. And the show highlights that she clearly was an enigma,; her despising wealth and the bourgeoisie but nicking the coats of every performer who wants to join the company points towards some kind of troubled soul. I got the feeling that, in today’s terms, if she’d been turned down by the Arts Council again she would definitely have crowdfunded her next project.

Dawn Hope as Joan and Emily Johnstone as Barbara WindsorMusically, I found the show rather disappointing; Sam Kenyon’s music goes for 50s/60s workaday showtime pastiche or dingy club vibes, but with not one outstanding song or memorable melody – it’s all filler. Jimmie Miller’s Wanderer’s Lament and Barbara Windsor’s A Little Bit of Business help us to understand those characters – and were immaculately performed by Greg Barnett and Emily Johnstone – but, along with the other songs, they are quickly forgotten. I was disappointed in the presentation of Shelagh Delaney as some kind of secretarial sex-kitten, pertly wobbling on her office chair, when in fact she was as much of a strong woman go-getter as Littlewood was; with a song about A Taste of Honey that derives humour from the fact that the character of Geof is “not the marrying kind”- (knowing titter) – whereas Delaney’s own attitude to gay people in plays was of complete acceptance and no fuss. It just didn’t ring true at all.

Aretha Ayeh as Joan and Amanda Hadingue as NickFortunately, the performances are excellent throughout, and one thing that having seven Joans does achieve is a high sense of ensemble playing. Claire Burt’s Joan Littlewood (the one that stays constant throughout the whole show) is an excellent portrayal of this complex, hard-hitting personality, sometimes fair, sometimes foul. Coming across as the unlikely lovechild of Che Guevara and Mary Portas, it’s a very knowing, very confident combination of the public and the private life of the woman. Perhaps surprisingly, she doesn’t constantly dominate the stage, frequently stepping back and observing the action so that we forget she’s there, which is a nice touch.

 Amanda Hadingue as JoanAmanda Hadingue is superb throughout, with her wonderfully arty avant-garde art teacher Nick, the dandy Victor Spinetti and other roles, including Joan 6. Emily Johnstone’s turn as Barbara Windsor is beautifully judged, suggesting the much-loved Babs without being an impersonation – and it works really well. There are excellent performances too from Aretha Ayeh as Joan 3 (her young challenging phase), Tam Williams as Howard Goorney and a delightfully soft-spoken Murray Melvin, Greg Barnett as the charismatic Jimmie Miller and Daisy Badger as the haranguing and harangued Rosalie. Best of all, the fabulous Sophie Nomvete steals every scene as the hard-working and inspirational Joan 4, and the “posh northern” Avis Bunnage – although they did play that open-voweled joke to death. Ms Nomvete broke our hearts as Sofia in The Color Purple and in Miss Littlewood she spreads joy with every breath she takes.

Sophia Nomvete as Avis BunnageFor me, there was much to enjoy and much to bang my head against a brick wall about. A true curate’s egg. The show is in repertoire at the Swan Theatre until 4th August.

Production photos by Topher McGrillis

Review – The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, Royal Shakespeare Company, Swan Theatre, Stratford upon Avon, 14th April 2018

Fantastic Follies of Mrs RichI don’t think I’ve ever encountered the works of Mary Pix before. She lived from 1666 to 1709 and I presume must be considered one of the earliest female playwrights whose works are performed today; only the still renowned Aphra Behn appears earlier in history. In 1700 Mary Pix wrote The Beau Defeated, or The Lucky Younger Brother, which Jo Davies and her team at the RSC have unearthed and re-shaped into The Fantastic Follies of Mrs Rich, a later Restoration period comedy of manners, and with which they have chalked up a most palpable hit.

Mrs Rich as Mrs RichMrs Rich (employing all the usual subtlety of 18th century character names) yearns for acceptance into society which she feels would fully recognise her innate style, elegance and quality. Trouble is, she’s all cash and no class. Pally with her cheeky maidservant Betty, whom she renames De la Bette because it sounds French, (although it sounds like it would mean of the beast!) she is the widow of a banker (who were clearly as popular in 1700 as they are today) and desperate to marry someone to get a title. Just the mention of the word Countess make her nose twitch excitedly like some Restoration Bisto Kid. In an attempt to become a Lady, she dallies with the foppish Sir John Roverhead, but he has an eye and a kiss curl for other ladies. Will Mrs Rich hit the big time with her social status or not? Will perhaps country squire the elder Lord Clerimont be the man she is looking for? You’ll just have to watch it to find out.

Susan Salmon, Tam Williams, Sophie Stanton, Sandy FosterMrs Rich is a dream of a comic character; one of a long line of pompous persons in drama who are ridiculed because of their pretentiousness. But she’s not just a female Malvolio. It’s her desire to achieve recognition of her quality to the outside world that is her true weak spot. She’s not actually an unkind person – far from it, although she will trample over you to get what she wants and if she spies a rival, woe betide them. She has Hyacinth Bucket’s need for everything to look perfect; she has Leonard Rossiter’s Rigsby’s desire to impress the mayor and join the golf club. You sense Mrs Rich would definitely wear The Emperor’s New Clothes if she thought it would bag her a Baron.

Laura Elsworthy, Daisy BadgerThis totally superb new production also plays around with the gender assumptions of the era. Though she may not have class, Mrs Rich has power, by virtue of her money. Normally it would only be men with that luxury. We see her powerplay with Sir John through her eyes rather than through his. She is surrounded by her own set of sycophantic women who, of course, support her every whim, until rivalry in love rears its ugly head and a duel ensues – but this time, it’s between two women.Jessica Turner, Daisy Badger In a side plot, it is the Lady Landsworth, who has come to a position of power by inheriting from a rich old reprobate when she was extremely young – we’re sensing Operation Yewtree levels here – who seeks to test potential future husbands/lovers/wealth providers by pretending to be a courtesan to see if they take the bait. Again, women control the men. Lady Landsworth’s object of desire is the pathetically lovelorn young Clerimont, who swoons to his bed with woeful regularity, thereby adopting the traditionally feminine role of languishing and being pursued whilst Lady L does all the running. It’s a fascinatingly different slice of life and of course extremely funny to see it from the other perspective.

Susan SalmonWhen you enter the auditorium, the fantastic orchestra is already there, knocking out Classics’ Greatest Hits but on saxophones! So you’ve already got a classic setting but with a surprisingly modern treatment, which sets the tone for the rest of the show. The backdrops inform you of the setting – so the salon chez Rich has an extravagant Hogarthian large scale painting on the back with the words Mrs Rich’s House spray-painted irreverently over the top. It’s classic, but it’s audacious. Young Clerimont’s rooms are depicted with a backdrop of a washing line with the name Mrs Fidget’s picked out in cross-stitch like a Victorian sampler. Colin Richmond’s costumes are exquisite, reflecting all the finery money can buy for Mrs Rich and her like, the practical country tweed for the huntin’ and fishin’ brigade, and Mrs Fidget’s “seen better days” cheap and cheerful look. Aretha AyehThe songs are by Grant Olding, who seems to be composing everything nowadays, and he’s clearly on top form as Mrs Rich breaks off from the narrative to deliver a few cabaret style numbers that do precisely what all the best songs in musicals do – push forward both the action and our understanding of the characters, with humour and pathos. If there was a cast album, I’d buy it.

Sandy Foster, Sophie Stanton, Tam WilliamsAt the heart of all the action is Mrs Rich, played with a tremendous sense of fun by Sophie Stanton. From the moment we meet her, dignity in tatters following an affront, you never want her to leave the stage. With her hair all bouffant’d up, and her portly skirts all hooped out, she looks like a cross between Madame de Maintenon and one of those dollies your Gran used to conceal a toilet roll. It’s a simply fantastic comic performance from start to finish, with brilliant throwaway lines (don’t forget your things, she mutters, as she dismisses her upstart niece), fabulous knowing looks to the audience we’ve not seen the like of since we saw Tyne Daly on Broadway, and – oh my stars – a complete revelling in the magnificent grandiloquence of her lines. Added to which, she has a startlingly beautiful and sincere singing voice that’s a perfect match for Grant Olding’s songs. She dominates the stage, but it’s a generous performance too, that allows her to be upstaged by the appearance of two lurchers over whom everyone fawns, whilst she’s left to pirouette vacantly as an attention-seeking device because the dogs are much more cute. A memorably classic comic performance.

Solomon Israel, Will Brown, Sadie ShimminShe is accompanied by a brilliant ensemble who take to the comedic opportunities of the show like a canard à l’eau. Too many to mention individually, but here are a few of the performances that really stood out for me. Solomon Israel’s brilliantly feeble Younger Clerimont had me in stitches throughout, as he mopes around in his blanket, lamely seeking solace from his manservant and landlady, the cheeky yet loyal Jack, played absolutely spot on by Will Brown and the delightfully faux-posh Mrs Fidget, played by Sadie Shimmin – whose fabulous drunk act brought back memories of Freddie Frinton.

Solomon IsraelDaisy Badger is a charmingly enthusiastic and confident Lady Landsworth, Laura Elsworthy a fearless and nicely impudent Betty, and Tam Williams a hilariously flamboyant Sir John. “I am…” he bows, flouncingly to Mr Rich, trendily removing “your humble servant” from the usual greeting to show his flighty modernity. “You’re what?” grumpily replies the surly brother in law.

Tam WilliamsMrs Rich’s gaming partners (who of course are out to fleece her) are beautifully played by Sandy Foster as the brilliantly pinch-expressioned and two-faced Mrs Trickwell and Susan Salmon as the trying-very-hard-to-be-French-but-not-quite-that-classy Lady La Basset. Amanda Hadingue is a hearty Toni the gamekeeper, and Leo Wringer an even heartier Elder Clerimont, terrifically conveying the unrefined enthusiasm of the rough diamond out-of-towner; a bit like Crocodile Dundee in New York but without the knives.

Amanda HadingueWe absolutely loved it and laughed all the way through. We could easily have gone back in and watched it again that evening; Duchess of Malfi was on instead though, so it wasn’t an option. I don’t think this is scheduled for a London transfer, so I urge you to get on to the RSC straight away to book tickets. It’s on until 14th June. Refusal is futile. You have to go!

Leo Wringer, Jessica TurnerP. S. Got to love those lurchers. Never work with animals they say, but these two spread joy on every appearance. On its final entrance to the stage the bigger one got sidetracked by the presence of an interesting chap in an aisle seat. You could almost hear the dog’s thought processes. “Hey! You look like a friendly type! Would you give me a stroke? Awww thanks! Any sweeties? I bet you do!! OK better get on with the show now. Bye! See you at the stage door!”

Production photos by Helen Maybanks

Review – Sunny Afternoon, Harold Pinter Theatre, 29th December 2014

Sunny AfternoonIf you’re like me, you can’t think of the Kinks’ Sunny Afternoon without instantly singing to yourself, “the taxman’s taken all my dough and left me in my stately home”; although I always thought it was the even more savage, “the taxman’s taken all my dole and left me in my stately hole”. Those old songs really are steeped in emotion. If you grew up with the Kinks, you’ll probably find that each of their songs brings back a particular memory, a moment, or a sensation. Dead End Street always reminds me of the first time I heard it, as a little kid, being astounded at the pounding introduction and even more so at the whispering “yeah!” fade out. Days always takes me back to sharing a study with my best friend when we were at university, desperately trying to cobble together essays on English literature against the clock.

The KinksI’ve always thought the Kinks have been vastly underrated in the annals of modern culture, with Ray Davies’ songs being easily comparable to Lennon/McCartney or Jagger/Richard. In many respects they bridged the gap between the Beatles and the Stones. On one side, John Lennon wrote about “me” – “there are places I remember all my life…”, “is there anybody going to listen to my story….”- and Paul McCartney delicately crafted characters and places like Eleanor Rigby and Penny Lane; on the other the Stones created the full rock guitar experience with songs like Satisfaction and Paint It Black whilst still incorporating thoughtful meaningful lyrics. Somewhere between the two Ray Davies and the Kinks could give you the introspective vision of Terry and Julie meeting at the Waterloo Sunset or the observation of the tiny caterpillar in Autumn Almanac, but still offering the full on rock attack of All Day and All of the Night, the gritty realism of Dead End Street, the wistful reminiscence of Days or the feel-good humour of Lola.

Resign or notSo a musical featuring the works of the Kinks is a nice idea. Would it be like Mamma Mia, where the songs of Abba get mish-mashed to create an original story, or would it actually tell the story of the group themselves? The Kinks’ songs are so full of story-telling technique that I am sure they would work well in the Mamma Mia model. But Sunny Afternoon (the musical) tells the journey of Ray, Dave and their mates and how they came to get a record contract, how they got their name, how Ray started to write songs of exquisite quality, how Dave was a loose cannon, how Mick kept on feeling like he wasn’t wanted, how they weren’t accepted in America, how they dealt with female fans, and, by ending with a rock concert finale, how their songs are still great today.

Ray and RasaJoe Penhall’s book is adapted from Ray Davies’ own original story of the Kinks, so we can assume that pretty much everything you see on stage is factually true. The songs adapt very well to reflecting the group’s birth, rise and fall; it all develops organically, and nothing feels forced or unnatural. Of course, I was just a nipper when the Kinks were at their height but I always felt I had an extra link to them as my cousin was friends with Ray Davies – not that I ever met him. So there was plenty for me to discover about the group. I wasn’t aware of the all the legal wrangles that beset the group, nor of how they came a-cropper in the States due to the Union rules, and in fact were banned from performing there. I’d also forgotten what a wild lad Dave Davies was. Some of the best parts of the show are where you see the creative process in action – how did they get those brilliant guitar riffs on the early singles? How did the Davies family home inspire Dead End Street? The music creates its own drama, and it feels very exciting.

Mr Davies SnrFor this production, they’ve given the insides of the Harold Pinter (I still think of it as the Comedy) something of an internal rip-out. The front couple of rows and the back few rows have been converted to cabaret tables. Additionally, the middle seats have been removed from the first seven or so rows and been replaced by a catwalk, so that the action can come further into the audience, giving a greater sensation of everything happening around you. Mrs Chrisparkle and I opted for one of the front cabaret tables – a table for two just to the right side of the stage. You certainly feel as though you’re in the heart of the action, but this location is not for the fainthearted. Steps just to the right of us led up to the stage, and as cast members bounded up and down them I frequently felt the need to grab hold of my merlot Kinks in Concertso that it didn’t topple over with the vibration. Your ears are also perilously close to a whopping great speaker – when the first few notes were played at the start of the show, Mrs C virtually leapt into the air with aural anguish and spent the next minute or so creating earplugs out of tissues. There’s a lot of looking up to do – otherwise your eyes look directly at the performers’ feet – and unless you twist your back round at about 135 degrees, you can’t see what’s happening on the catwalk. However, despite all those quibbles, I really enjoyed our perspective on the show! You become something more than just audience when you’re that close, you’re really participating too; and the impact of the music is outstanding.

Kinks in AmericaThe set is simple but intricate – the walls are lined from top to bottom with speakers. All around, everywhere you look, woofers and tweeters abound. The emphasis is all on the music – and, as you would expect with all those speakers, it’s loud. The show is directed by Edward Hall, best known for his work with the all-male Shakespeare company Propeller – we saw their Henry V a few years ago and I was very impressed with the company’s sense of ensemble. You very much sense it in this show too, so it must be one of Mr Hall’s strong points. The choreography is by Adam Cooper, and you can’t get much more impressive a name-check than that.

John DagleishThe performances are great – both musically and in the story-telling. John Dagleish plays Ray Davies and does indeed have something of the look of the young Ray about him. Quirky, funny, gritty – rather like his songs in fact. Ned Derrington and Adam Sopp play the lesser known band members Pete and Mick with great 60s aplomb and attitude, but probably the best performance of the night is by George Maguire as Dave Davies – a real, unpredictable, wild child, oozing mischief, and with an overriding desire to have a good time. From our vantage point, I could see that Mr Maguire George Maguirewas Absolutely Loving It. The final scene converts into a full on concert party, with the guys reprising all the best boppy Kinks numbers and Mr Maguire encourages us all to get on our feet and bop along. When I stood up, he looked at me with a big grin as if to say “you too, old geezer? Good on ya!” It made me feel quite welcome. However, perhaps the vocal highlight of the show comes a few minutes earlier when the four guys perform an acapella rendition of Days, which only the hardest of hearts wouldn’t find emotional.

Davies BrothersThere’s another excellent double act in the show – Dominic Tighe as Robert Wace and Tam Williams as Grenville Collins, two rather posh characters who end up representing the Kinks as Management in a rather hit-and-miss manner. Messrs Tighe and Williams really play up the toffee-nosed aspects of their characters without ever drifting into caricature, and they provide a lot of fun. We’d seen Mr Tighe a couple of times before, in the touring production of Barefoot in the Park and in the excellent Charley’s Aunt at the Menier, but he’d kept his musical ability quiet in those shows, so I was surprised to discover he’s really a very good singer! And we both loved Lillie Flynn as Rasa, Ray’s wife, giving great vocal support to the band numbers but also singing solo with great emotion – her performance of I Go To Sleep was a knockout. But everyone gives strong, enjoyable performances and there isn’t a weak spot anywhere; and you have to give a mention to the terrific band, directed by Elliott Ware, and the high octane guitar playing by Pete Friesen.

Dave getting randyThere are a couple of sins of omission; although the story is primarily seen from Ray’s point of view it would have been great to have at least one of Dave’s songs there as well – preferably Death of a Clown. I also missed Autumn Almanac, which is hippy quirkiness at its best, the cynical Plastic Man and the surreal Victoria. Still, you can’t have everything. It’s a feel-good show that brings the Kinks firmly back to the limelight where they belong. Irresistibly enjoyable, a perfect party show with great music and musical performances but also telling a strong story with a good sense of its time. I spent the following four days unable to get Kinks’ songs out of my head! If you’re a fan of the group, you’ll love this show – and if you’re undecided, I bet you’ll be fan by the time you go home.