INTERVIEW: Sam Kenyon on making Miss Littlewood at the RSC

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Clare Burt, Sam Kenyon, and Sophia Nomvete during rehearsals for Miss Littlewood. Photo RSC/Topher McGrillis

Anti-establishment, visionary, rude and glorious, Joan Littlewood (1914-2002) founded the Theatre Workshop at Stratford East, and was a loved (and loathed) anarchic revolutionary of 20th century theatre. Sam Kenyon has created new musical Miss Littlewood, which opened at the Royal Shakespeare Company’ Swan Theatre last week, charting her life story. The actor, writer, musician, composer and lyricist tells Gill Sutherland how his extraordinary musical came about. (See this week’s Herald for our review.)

On paper making a musical of Joan Littlewood’s life sounds like it might be quite a kitsch affair. Discuss!

I’m not a writer of ironic musical theatre — there’s no jazz hands, tits and teeth!

One of Sondheim’s tenets in his book on writing lyrics (Look I Made a Hat) is ‘content dictates form’, and I’ve used that approach a lot in my writing process. The content of whatever it is I’m writing about, in this case Joan Littlewood and the theatre, is reflected in the form of the song or play. There are times where I might use idioms playfully or ironically but it hasn’t got that over-arching umbrella of irony. We are revering rather than sending up.

How did the project get started?

I’d never really heard of Joan Littlewood. Then in 2005 I did a show with Murray Melvin [the English stage and film actor noted for his work with Joan, Ken Russell and Stanley Kubrick]. We were chatting and he told me about Joan and said ‘she was my university’, and he spoke about her with such love, gratitude and passion — and that was it, I wanted to find out more. I basically stalked him, and got to know her through him.

I tried to read her autobiography, Joan’s Book, but it was a bit insufferable and I shelved it. It’s like Ulysses — I love a difficult read but by God Joan’s was hard, and really weird.

Then in 2010 Erica Whyman [director on Miss Littlewood], who I had done a couple of shows with, asked me if I wanted to co-direct Joan’s play Oh, What a Lovely War! for the Northern Stage.

A few years later, in 2013, I pulled Joan’s book from the shelf and found I could read it this time, and got completely hooked.

It was the first time that I went ‘this has got to be a musical!’. I’ve always been curious about when Andrew Lloyd Webber had that idea that that Eva Perón would make a good musical — a similarly unlikely character for a musical. Where would we be without Evita?!

There are seven actresses playing different Joans in the musical, tell us about that.

When I was reading the book I thought she’s about 18 different people, what can we do here?! She’s so changeable, and really it came from the way she writes. She wrote it in her 80s and talks about being a 12-year-old seeing John Gielgud. She says of him ‘Gielgud was too decorative’ either she was incredibly precocious or she is rewriting history. Again it’s about content dictating form because it’s about the relationship she has with her past selfs as the narrator of her own story; there’s more than one story.

I decided on the figure of seven because men have the ‘Seven ages of man’. I’m always interested in is the development of musical theatre and doing something that’s not been done before. And I don’t think anyone has ever done a septet of the same character.

I’m always touched by those ‘letter to my 15-year-old self’ articles. So I’ve written a piece of theatre where she can have a chat with her teen self, get in the way of her 20-year-old self, or get sent out of the room by her 40-year-old self.

How did you sell the idea to Erica?

We were having lunch and I said casually ‘I should write a musical about Joan Littlewood’, and she said that would be quite interesting, that was all she said. I just saw it as a nice nugget of encouragement and I carried on with my research. This included interviewing a lot o people close to Joan — Melvin, actresses Barbara Young and Barbara Windsor, who had worked with her at the Theatre Workshop. Then I wrote about three songs, including Where Have You Been All My Life?, which is apparently what Joan said to Barbara Windsor after she first auditioned for her. It’s sort of a love song between straight women!

In 2014 Erica invited me to show what I had as part of an R and D (research and development) showcase, so wrote some more songs and presented six songs and a little scene. That was that, then I had dinner with Erica a few months later and she said, by the way we would like to commission it.

I’m so excited and passionate about this and Joan, that I think it has given the project an extraordinary charisma, as it turns out! So there’s been a real momentum to it.

Is the show a hagiography or a homage?

Neither really. It’s about inviting the audience to reflect on Joan and who she was given the era she worked in, from that background, in theatre and the public eye, and how she felt pinned down by the hegemony. She is from the same era as Grace Kelly, but she doesn’t join in in the same trappings of femininity — she brushed her hair and ironed her blouse and that was about it. I’m interested in her resistance to that categorisation.

What do you hope the audience will make of Miss Littlewood?

What I wanted from my piece was for people to find it accessible. It’s about people that work in the theatre, but I want it to enthuse people who have never been to the theatre before. There’s nothing you ought to know before you go in, no obscure references. It’s about doing what Joan did, making it as universal as possible — that’s why it’s a love story and a musical: there’s heartbreak, so people can relate to it.

What would Joan have made of a musical of her life?

She said of theatre that there must always be music and it must always be live. And what I’ve found in my research is that when I’ve been in doubt I’ve opened her book and always found a gem like that.

My first rule when I was writing it was to make something she wouldn’t have hated it. The little that I know of her she’s so critical and analytical, it’s impossible to second guess her. But anytime it was becoming too saccharine, I would undercut it, which goes all the way through it. It’s got an inbuilt shrug — ‘who cares?’ — which she consistently echoed; she doesn’t think of herself as someone special, even when she got her Olivier.

I hope she would like it.

Miss Littlewood runs until 4th August.