Joan Littlewood: Her life and approach to theatre

Joan Littlewood: Her life and approach to theatre

Thursday, 15 January 2015

Responsible for creating Oh What a Lovely War at Theatre Royal Stratford East in 1963, Joan Littlewood remains as one of the most revolutionary figures in British education, politics and the arts. Jenny King provides an introduction to her life ahead of the revival of the production later this month. 


Joan Littlewood was born in 1914 in South London and died in 2002 in North London. As a young woman she attended RADA for a short while until she decided it was not for her and left for Manchester. There she met Ewan McColl (then Jimmy Miller) and formed first Theatre of Action in 1934 and then Theatre Union in the late 30s. Joan directed and Jimmy wrote words and music for these agit prop companies.   They also both worked for the BBC as radio documentary makers.    

Theatre Workshop was formed in Manchester in 1945 and toured extensively around the UK. In 1953 the company settled at theatre royal, Stratford East 15.

As a director she helped change the face of British theatre. She broadened the classic repertoire, discovered new writers, and created a genuine company of extraordinary perfomers to create a fresh theatrical style of playing.  Amongst her celebrated productions were Volpone, Uranium 235, Henry IV, Richard II, Edward II, Twelfth Night, Treasure Island, The Quare Fellow, The Hostage, A Taste of Honey, Fings Ain’t Wot They Used To Be, Mrs Wilson’s Diary and of course Oh What a Lovely War.

By 1963 Joan had three productions in the West End. But Theatre Workshop never received the funding it deserved to continue its work at Stratford East and after her partner, Gerry Raffles’ premature death in 1975 – Joan retired from directing in the theatre. She continued to write and work on ‘ideas’ for shows and events until her death in 2002.

Joan was a genius and for those of us who were lucky enough to have met her and worked with her in whatever capacity,  - we have been both blessed and cursed.

If we work in theatre, there is no one that we are likely to have worked with or to work with who will be as demanding, as knowledgeable, as passionate, as difficult, as intelligent,  as entertaining and as dangerous.

She set a benchmark to which we can only aspire.

Joan Littlewood

Joan was fun but she was also extremely serious about her profession.   She could be cruel and destructive and dismissive of anyone who did not step up to her mark.    And this applied to those she met in life as well as professionally.

Theatre was not a career for Joan it was a vocation and a way of life.

And it wasn’t just about putting on plays -  she didn’t like plays much, except the classics.    Theatre was about life and people – about  all our lives – not just those of the privileged and comfortable.

Her definition of theatre was as much to do with how we present ourselves to each other in life as about how professional actors performed on stage.

And theatre was about transformation and change.  Joan’s approach to keeping the work on stage fresh and alive was about keeping it always open to change, never ‘stuck’, never complacent.     She would make actors swap roles on a long run to keep their performances fresh and alive.

Joan’s actors were and are first and foremost human beings;  secondly they were actors;   highly trained and disciplined performers but chosen and nurtured by Joan for their character and personality as much as for their talent.   

In the mid-sixties, Joan tired of the ‘Black Box’ proscenium theatre and she joined forces with Cedric Price, a young architect, with whom she dreamed up ideas of a Fun Palace.  

Although plans were drawn up for the building, finance was never raised, and Joan’s own fun palace plans became a development of her notion that every theatre needed to connect to the community around it - she described it as the “lung” which breathed life into the building.       

Oh What a Lovely War runs at London's Theatre Royal Stratford East from 29 January to 7 February 2015, and then tours to Richmond, Malvern, Manchester, Cambridge, Bath, Torquay, Guildford, Coventry, Brighton, Leicester, Aylesbury and Birmingham, where the tour concludes on 9 May 2015.