Kaite O’Reilly: British theatre in the first half of the twentieth century was a staid and conventional affair. Conservative, overly-ornate and a closed shop to all but the best connected, it seemed to be in the process of eating itself. And then came the unlikely provocateur in a Bertolt Brecht cap. With the swagger of The Little Tramp and the filthy mouth of a sailor, Joan Littlewood cursed and hustled and refused to take no for an answer. Anti-establishment, committed to social change and the power of performance, she broke the rules and got things done. It is because of her authentic working class accents were heard for the first time on British stages – and as equal protagonists reflecting experience and cultural values, not the caricatured ‘cor blimey guv’nor’ cardboard cut-outs that had appeared before.
She and her actors moved into the derelict Theatre Royal in east-end London and renovated the place themselves, then stunned a sleepwalking theatre scene with Brendan Behan, Shelagh Delaney and the savage satire Oh What a Lovely War, making the Daily Telegraph remark that Littlewood had ‘achieved a working class revolution on stage.’
Her impact is far-reaching, with her great causes – improvisation, community and political theatre – established in the mainstream. Joan Littlewood was a working class hero and lioness of theatre, who always kept the faith: ‘I really do believe in the community, I really do believe in the genius in every person. And I’ve heard that greatness come out of them…’
It is she who springs to mind when I think of Laurel Thatcher Ulrich’s maxim ‘well-behaved women seldom make history.’ Now in the centenary of her birth, I am proud to be part of the Fun Palaces celebrating her vision and power as that wonderful thing: a ‘difficult’ woman who will never be bowed, and will never shut up.
Lisa Parry: I first came across Littlewood and Delaney when I was 17. The angry young men came up as part of my A-levels, so I dutifully read Look Back In Anger. I related to Jimmy’s feelings of being caught between two worlds – I was brought up in a working class family and part of the first generation to go to university – but, if I’m honest, what stayed with me the most was the image of an interchangeable woman next to an ironing board, her life and emotional landscape determined by a man. It terrified me.
So when we went on to study Littlewood and Theatre Workshop, I felt something akin to relief. I read of a female doer, a leader, someone who made things happen in working class communities and who re-enforced the idea theatre could be for people like me. And Littlewood’s theatre was exciting. I learnt stories didn’t have to be told naturalistically. I learnt theatre could be revolutionary. I learnt it didn’t have to be enforced fun at pantomimes or (some admittedly good) school trips to see Shakespeare.
My reading brought me to A Taste of Honey. Even now, I still can’t quite believe Delaney wrote it at 18. It’s bold, brilliant, and truthful. It’s active. It’s furious. It allowed me to think my experience as a woman mattered. Its non-idealised portrait of pregnancy and motherhood, of mother-daughter relationships, of a woman’s response to sex still come into my mind. It inspired me to become a writer and to write about what I know and believe.
In short, Littlewood and Delaney took me into a world where women made or wrote their own stories, rather than having them written. And I’m still extremely grateful to them for that.
Samantha Ellis: I was going through a bit of a dark time in my twenties when I found myself in the sepulchral gloom of the Theatre Museum archives, reading about the premiere of Shelagh Delaney’s A Taste of Honey. In a tattered newspaper clipping, the play’s director, Joan Littlewood responded to disgruntled critics who said Delaney was just like the Angry Young Men. The implication being that women shouldn’t be angry, that we didn’t have the right. Littlewood said Delaney was “the antithesis of London’s Angry Young Men. She knows what she is angry about.” Suddenly I felt I was doing everything wrong. I wanted to be tougher. I wanted to make theatre, not write about it. I wanted to know what I was angry about. It’s a question I still ask myself all the time, what is making me angry and how I can channel that anger.
My encounter with Delaney and Littlewood changed the way I wrote, and the way I live. It made me think I could write about real people—Ken Tynan wrote that “Miss Delaney brings real people on to her stage, joking and flaring and scuffling and eventually, out of the zest for life she gives them, surviving.” After reading her, I started writing heroines (and the odd hero) who were based on people I was interested in and didn’t see represented nearly enough: traumatised Iraqi refugees, doubt-ridden Orthodox Jews, Kurdish freedom fighters, anxious feminists, bold bluestockings… Subjects I’d been too scared of tackling—like my own disability—moved centre stage. I realised that if you do as Tynan said, and Delaney did, and write real people enough humour, fight and zest, they’ll survive—and how liberating that can be.
Katie McCullough: I’m not ashamed to admit that my theatrical knowledge is limited. Being dictated to about what I should and shouldn’t know has never appealed to me and I prefer a more inquisitive approach. Someone will reference a director, playwright, play, and I’ll note it. To this end I first stumbled upon the legend of Joan Littlewood after being recommended Mike Bradwell’s book The Reluctant Escapologist. Coming from a family who are not arts-aware, early on my personal goal became about getting people into the theatre who had never experienced it. Writing stories that were relatable, but more importantly from a lower-class perspective. The working man, the working woman; inclusive, representative. So reading this same fierce belief shouting at me from the past reinvigorated what I try to do with my writing still. The fact that we’re still shouting the same thing today shows how much bigger that choir has got.
When asked her expectations from critics about A Taste Of Honey, Delaney responded that the most rewarding response were from the punters – the cleaners, brick-layers, the people off the street – if they enjoyed it then she knew they meant it. It comes down to representation – not just women, but class. Littlewood’s open-armed invitation is not only still relevant, but it’s really fucking crucial. Fun Palaces captures the beauty of human capabilities, of the beautiful energy of interaction. It fully realises the potential of how accessible theatre can be. We are all investigators, we are all invited. So go to any one of the multitude that are happening, and take someone who thinks theatre is for posh twats. They’re the ones that need to be crossing the line and joining the choir.
Kaite O’Reilly is an award winning writer, theatre-maker and difficult woman, and is a patron of Agent 160. Her Fun Palace play is called Purple and Green.
Lisa Parry is a playwright, poet and freelance writer who lives in Cardiff. She founded Agent 160. Her Fun Palace play is called A Mother’s Heart.
Katie McCullough is a graduate of Bournemouth Media School and the Royal Court. Her Fun Palace play is called Nissa’s Waiting Over There.
Members of the public can also join the Fun Palace by writing a play and seeing it performed – and on Sunday 5th October at 4pm, Agent 160 are holding a discussion called Women: Do You Know What You Are Angry About?