Joan, Babs & Shelagh Too; Q&A with creator Gemskii
14 May 2018
We spoke with writer, actor and producer Gemskii about her show Joan, Babs & Shelagh Too, part of our women's festival I'll Say It Again! season this month. Gemskii talks about why Joan Littlewood had such an impact on British theatre, and why her story must be shared. Catch it on Wednesday 23rd May, 7.30pm - book here!
You describe Joan Littlewood as an “unsung hero”, why do you think she isn’t better known?
In her day Joan was popular but rejected some things that came with traditional stage ‘success’. She hated her West End success because the West End took the punch out of her work. An example of this is Max Bygraves cover of Joan’s hit ‘Fings aint what they used to be.’ He sings: There used to be Trams/ not very quick/ Gotcha from place to place/ But now there's just jams half a mile thick/ I'm walking
Whereas the original lyric was: It used to be class/doing the town/ Buying a little vice/That’s when a brass, wouldn’t go down under the union price/not likely. The original lyric was about seedy, real life and the West End lyric was about traffic!
How would you describe Joan Littlewood in 3 words?
Erudite, radical, fearless.
Why do you think it’s so important to re-tell the story of Joan Littlewood?
Joan’s influence has entirely shaped contemporary British theatre so she deserves to be recognised and remembered. She dared to defy convention and the establishment in order to make theatre available to the masses and not just the privileged few. Her story shows that you have to stand for something to affect change. Joan Littlewood was not universally liked. It seems to me that women in particular, are overly concerned with being ‘liked’ instead of being themselves.
Why did you choose Barbara Windsor and Shelagh Delaney to depict in the play?
This was partly a quirk of the process of making the show. Originally it was a production with a cast of 7 and one of the cast was a dead ringer for Barbara Windsor. So we found a way to bring Barbara into the fore. At this stage we also wanted to focus on Joan’s biggest successes. ‘A Taste of Honey’ was ground-breaking and so Shelagh’s place was assured. Joan, Babs & Shelagh Too is reminiscent of ‘Rita, Sue and Bob too’, which resonates in multiple ways. The latter is an extraordinary working class story, which I feel Joan’s is as well.
How did you go about preparing for this play?
We used Joan’s method to create this – a lengthy period of research: the times, the characters and their work. E15 acting school lent their expertise and in one of their studios, 7 of us did weekly Laban movement classes with Jean Newlove’s prodigy. Several months later, with Gerry McAlpine we improvised together, setting up important moments in Joan’s life. This taught us how Joan actually felt about them all. Then I worked alone and thought about the story I wanted to tell – which was Joan’s whole story. With Andrew St. John’s help a structure was created. Finally a script was developed. When it was debuted at Edinburgh Fringe the script was still largely improvised, much to the consternation of our venue tech! The Edinburgh run attracted the attention of Oliver Senton who expressed a desire to develop what I had. The Edinburgh version was 55 minutes and we added another 25 minutes together.
What can people expect from Joan, Babs & Shelagh Too?
‘A fantastic central performance’ according to Broadway Baby, Manchester Theatre Review and The Scotsman!