revew: Gemskii – Joan, Babs & Shelagh Too
Joan, Babs & Shelagh Too/
dir Oliver Senton/
At times, Joan, Babs & Shelagh Too feels like a particularly animated conversation a stranger might have at you in a pub. There’s a lot to take in, they’re probably two drinks ahead of you and you’re not much able to add anything beyond occasional head-nodding or mumbles of agreement. The show is a one woman collision between a potted history of mid 20th century Britain, a biography of Joan Littlewood’s life, and straight-up hero worship. The result is a lot to take in.
When you’re hearing about someone anecdotally it’s difficult to separate the actual person from them what’s telling the story. Joan emerges through a veil; Gemskii’s enthusiasm is refreshing, and holds an otherwise dramaturgically loose show together, but there’s very little sense of who this Joan Littlewood character actually was. Overwhelmingly, the person we see most onstage is Gemskii herself. That sounds a little redundant to say about a one woman show but in addition to Joan Littlewood, Gemskii gives us portraits of Barbara Windsor, Shelagh Delaney, Ewan MacColl, Gerry Raffles, and others. The number of characters and facets of Littlewood the show seems desperate to display serves to cloud whatever it is the show is trying to tell us. Recurring cameos from the cast of her acquaintances, to each of whom she meant something different, muddies the result further.
This is a very earnest show, which I am convinced believes very fervently in what it is doing, but what it is doing is crowded and spread too thin. Puppetry, song, dance, movement, occasionally dubious accents, audience interaction, all clamour for attention one after the other. Gemskii’s performance often holds itself up on charm alone – but the clamour and the very deliberate persistent inclusion of biographical fact makes the whole feel a bit like a lecture.
I like having conversations with drunk strangers in pubs, but when I do, sometimes it’s more about observing their passion for something than actually learning about the Beeching Axe or how to make a good stock. Gemskii’s passion is energising, her ability to play the audience strong, but Joan, Babs & Shelagh Too is sporadic and restless, difficult to make sense of, for all its conviction.