Joan, Babs and Shelagh too, A tribute to Joan Littlewoo
HIP talks to Gemskii, the one-woman force behind Conscious Theatre and Glenys Jacques of Electric Palace about this production, coming soon to Hastings Old Town, on how it all came about, and the formidable Joan Littlewood herself.
“I was taught by great comic and actor Ken Campbell.” Says Gemskii. “He said I was a reincarnation of Littlewood – he said, ‘you’re brilliant but no-one likes you’.”
This was nine years ago at East 15, the famous acting school founded in 1961 to take forward Littlewood’s unique approach to theatre making. “She was a woman in a man’s world, swore like a trooper, could be fiercely furious at a moment’s notice, and often reduced people to tears. Her Theatre Workshop pioneered new ways of theatre making, working with ensemble casts – people could be asked to switch roles from one night to the next to make sure no-one got too attached to what they were doing. She turned down Michael Caine saying ‘you’ll only ever be a star’. She also championed strong, rounded female characters, and directed the first openly gay character and the first black character in a central role in British theatre”.
“When the centenary of Littlewood’s birth was approaching, in 2014, I decided to collaborate with East 15 on a show to celebrate her life and work”, she continues. There was a cast of six, a musical director and a publicist. But a dispute over rights meant the school pulled out just four weeks before the show was due to go to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. “It was a horrible experience, the worst time of my life, but the idea of failure was worse so I decided to take it to Edinburgh on my own”.
Taking a complex multi-character show and turning it into a one-woman performance was a challenge. One of the characters, as the name suggests, is Barbara Windsor. “The idea of playing her was outside my comfort zone to say the least, so I did an eight-hour improvisation at London Pride that year, in full costume, to get her character – now it’s the strongest character in the show.”
By the time Edinburgh came around, the show was up and running but not yet perfected. It got three star reviews, “which was fair,” says Gemskii, “it contained some schoolgirl errors, the show needs to be sharp and there is no room for these”. She took the production on tour, continued to hone it, and took it on tour again – her most recent run included a performance in the Brighton fringe, where it got five star reviews and was described as ‘outstanding’.
And this was where Jacques, saw the show. “It reminded me immediately of all the stuff I saw in the 70s” she says, “feminist theatre with a grass roots way of doing things, people working hard to create the experience.”
“It will be interesting to intelligent people, people who love theatre and love the theatre”, says Gemskii. “She was no fool, so I can’t do something foolish with her story.” People who remember Littlewood’s work and the time she was working and theatre students in particular will get a lot out of the show. Jacques continues “I thought it would be perfect for the Electric Cinema, because of the community and also the intimacy of the space. I think people might be inspired to think ‘I could do this – I could do something like this at the Electric Palace’”.
A last word from Gemskii on the show? “Just that I really enjoy doing it, it’s multi skilled, with tap and puppetry, I pretend to be a boy, I pretend to be a girl like I am, I pretend to be a girl like I’m not … and I’ve fallen in love with Joan.”
Joan, Babs and Shelagh Too, Conscious Theatre, Friday 29 September Electric Palace, tickets £10, electricpalacecinema.com