Joan Littlewood and Theatre Workshop
Theatre Workshop was created by a group of actors committed to a left wing ideology. Directed by Joan Littlewood, they devised and commissioned plays by and about the working class in the UK. The company experimented with physical approaches to characterisation, drawing on the work of Rudolf Laban, and drew many of their actors from non-theatrical backgrounds.
In 1953 Theatre Workshop moved to the derelict Theatre Royal in Stratford East, London. The actors lived in the dressing rooms and slowly redecorated the theatre between rehearsals.
Despite its commitment to bringing a diverse programme of work to the local community it was only after international recognition that the local council would consider funding. Their reworking of 'Volpone' and 'Arden of Faversham' were performed in Paris at the International Festival of Theatre in 1955 to much acclaim.
They also supported and promoted new writing, producing successful new works such as Shelagh Delaney's 'A Taste of Honey' and Brendan Behan's 'The Quare Fellow' which both transferred to the West End.
The most famous Theatre Workshop production was the 1963 play 'Oh What a Lovely War!' which eventually transferred to the West End and then Broadway. Despite a run of successful West End transfers from the Theatre Royal Stratford East in the 1960s the theatre had to fight off developers who tried to demolish the building in the early 1970s.
Today, the theatre still has a strong community focus and is committed to promoting new and multi-cultural work.
Portrait of Joan Maud Littlewood
Portrait of Joan Maud Littlewood (1914-2002), Margaret Dorothy Nicholson, oil on canvas, England, 1931. Museum no. S.95-1986
Newspaper review of Uranium 235
Ewan MacColl (born James Miller) ran, with Joan Littlewood, an experimental theatre company called Theatre of Action, which later became known as Theatre Workshop. He worked with Littlewood for 20 years, for much of which time they were married, advancing the theory of drama through a revolutionary technique. They used speech, mime, dances and song and devoted most of their time to playing in industrial centres to theatrically uneducated audiences.
McColl's play Uranium 235 was described on a handout as 'a vivid portrayal of the history of atomic research and the problems raised by the atom bomb'. The Glasgow Herald wrote that most writers would have got caught up in tales of dictators and secret agents, but McColl 'tells the story of mankind through the past 2,500 years, his struggle against stupidity and ignorance, his misuse of science ... and his undying spirit'. He even made quantum theory accessible, by portraying scientists Niels Bohr and Max Planck as a pair of knockabout comics.
Uranium 235 played throughout Britain and in 1952 Michael Redgrave brought this production to London's Embassy Theatre and then the West End.
Shelagh Delaney, about 1959
Shelagh Delaney, a working class girl from Salford in Lancashire, made her name with her play 'A Taste of Honey' which she wrote in 1957 aged 18. The play deals with a whole range of social issues that were taboo in the 1950s. The teenage Jo has an affair with a black sailor, becomes pregnant while unmarried and moves in with a homosexual friend, Geoffrey, who looks after her.
Delaney loved theatre but was bored by the blandness of plays by and about middle class people. She also objected to the portrayal of Northerners as 'gormless'. She sent her play to Joan Littlewood who staged it in 1958 in Stratford, East London. Plays about working class people were still not common in mainstream theatre, and John Osbourne's groundbreaking 'Look Back in Anger' had been produced only two years earlier.
Oh, What a Lovely War! 1998
This is a 1998 revival of Oh, What a Lovely War!, the musical that was one of the most famous productions directed by the extraordinary Joan Littlewood and her company Theatre Workshop.
It was a savage satire based on World War I. Written by Littlewood in 1963 it ruthlessly exposed the horrors of the trenches and the callous incompetence of the ruling aristocracy that sent thousands of men to their death. The whole thing was dressed up as an Edwardian music hall show performed by Pierrots who were popular in seaside pier shows.
Theatre Workshop was a radical left-wing theatre company which aimed to bring theatre to the people. Much of their work was created through improvisation in rehearsal. As part of the process of creating Oh, What A Lovely War! the company invited locals to come and see the work in progress and ended up incorporating some of their stories into the production.