Joan Littlewood, who has died in Paris aged 87, was a hugely influential director whose Theatre Workshop company turned the Theatre Royal, Stratford East, into one of the powerhouses of British Theatre.
Although the Workshop was created in 1945, its heyday was the late 1950's and early 1960's. Among the plays it presented were Brendan Behan's The Quare Fellow and The Hostage; Shelagh Delaney's A Taste of Honey (which was filmed, starring the young Rita Tushingham); Lionel Bart's Fings Ain't Wot They Used T'Be; Stephen Lewis' Sparrers Can't Sing and, of course, the hugely popular Oh! What a Lovely War.
Littlewood's preferred technique of improvisation, rapid rewrites and a mix of words, songs and jokes owed a lot to the music-hall tradition. This was an art form mainly enjoyed by the working class, and she saw it (as Lilian Baylis had before her) as her mission in life to bring theatre to the working classes.
In this she was only partly successful, but she certainly attracted a wide range of new, young, often working-class actors and writers, whose tradition of ensemble work, improvisation and collective creativity came to its greatest fruition in Oh! What A Lovely War in 1963. The musical was an immediate hit and has remained one, with a particularly successful production by Ian Talbot at the Open Air Theatre, Regent's Park this summer.
After her partner Gerry Raffles died in 1975, Littlewood moved to France, where she died, in Paris, on Sept. 20. Although her best work was produced over 40 years ago or more, she remained a legendary figure within theatrical circles, and her death marks the final, belated end of one of the most exciting chapters in mid-twentieth-century British theatre.
—By Paul Webb Theatrenow