Joan Littlewood wanted to make theatre open to everyone, and I think she'd have approved of the RSC's summer programme, including this new musical that tells her life story. When I arrived with my family, we were greeted by crowds of enthusiastic people of all ages and from all over the world filing out of the matinees of both Miss Littlewood and the main-stage production of Romeo and Juliet.
I had tickets for Miss Littlewood in the Swan Theatre, a small theatre tucked away at the end of the main RSC building which has clearly been constructed to look a little like the Globe. The stage was right next to us, one of the walkways shooting past our seats, which, during the performance, made me feel like I was right in the thick of the action (and what action!). My parents managed to nab a couple of the very last tickets on sale, for just £5 each. Joan would have approved of the accessible prices, and the fact that they still had such a good view that the only performer they couldn't really see was the pianist.
I had no idea what to expect from Miss Littlewood, and so I gave a surprised laugh along with the rest of the audience when the adult Joan barged into the middle of the scene where her grandparents had discovered that their daughter was pregnant, and started directing the news of her own conception. The play carried on working this meta angle, with Joan hiring and firing the six different actresses who play her at various points throughout her life, and arguing with the long-suffering director who's determined that Joan won't interfere too much in her own history. The fourth wall wasn't so much broken as pushed far back behind the last row of the audience - everyone was an active participant in Miss Littlewood's life story.
The cast were excellent across the board, but the standout members were the many Joans, particularly Clare Burt as the overarching, narrating Joan, Aretha Ayeh as Joan 2, and Sophia Nomvete as both Joan 3 and an irrepressible Avis Bunnage. Emily Johnstone was also great, not just as Joan 1 but as an uncannily convincing young Barbara Windsor. The songs were catchy, and the accompanying dances were full of enthusiasm that had me wishing I could shimmy along.
Miss Littlewood is a new musical, but I predict that this show won't be a flash in the pan. As well as being expertly structured and staged, it gives a fascinating insight into an important figure - and era - in theatre. It's a timely reminder that the arts shouldn't be elitist and exclusive, and that diverse voices and stories belong on the stage. At one point, Joan says "If you don't like what you see, do something better" - and with Miss Littlewood, Sam Kenyon has done just that.