Sparrows Can't Sing review, The New Yorker, 39:169-70, 5/18/63
Joan Littlewood is the English stage director who has helped bring to birth the rumpled, ragamuffiny works of, among others, Brendan Behan and Shelagh Delaney. By incessantly whacking and scourging and mocking the formal structure of a play, she threatens to leave it for dead, but it nearly always turns out, to our astonishment, that this is simply Dr. Littlewood's way of breathing fresh life into the patient, who then nimbly leaps out of bed, shrugs off his nightgown, and dances a jib in his skin. Miss Littlewood has now directed her first movie, "Sparrows Can't Sing," and it's a smasher. Taken from a play by Stephen Lewis, and with a a screenplay by Mr. Lewis and Miss Littlewood, it rejoices to display, in and out of doors, at tearing speed, all the tricks that have hitherto worked so well for Miss Littlewood in the comparatively crippling confines of the theatre, and it goes without saying that in the performance of these tricks--the riveting of our attention by fracturing it, the apparently helter-skelter accumulation and scattering of random objects and people--she finds her perfect accomplice in film, which by its nature can outrage expectation more adroitly than any other form of art so far devised. Breathlessly, in a hurly-burly of sight and sound, we're swung from dock to slum to park to pub on the whirling pinwheel of East London, and it's only when the picture spins to a stop that we perceive how unerring has been our journey through seeming chaos, how cunning our guide. Some viewers are sure to complain that "Sparrows Can't Sing" has too slight or too ramshackle a plot; I consider it a measure of Miss Littlewood's success to thus deceive the unwary. Despite its ruffled surface, the picture is as tightly organizes as--let me choose, for a bold comparison, one of the best of comedies in another medium--"Ulysses." Not a moment of it strikes me as unnecessary or irrelevant, and the abrupt cutting from one brief scene to the next, always well before we're ready for it, and with every scene flung athwart its predecessor in an acute contrast of light, dark, loud, soft, is brilliant almost beyond praise.
The story, again like "Ulysses," is the superficially simple one of two men who are doomed to meet and of what happens (how little but how much!) when the encounter finally takes place. One of the men is a lusty, brutally playful sailor called Charlie, coming home after two years to a warm blond doll of a wife, whose mind has never so far betrayed her body as to raise questions of right and love in respect to making love. The other man, a bus driver named Bert, is the proverbial decent sort, who has left a troublesome wife to take up with the blonde. Around these three moves a constellation of Cockney relatives, friends, and hangers-on, to each of whom, for all her break-neck pace, Miss Littlewood mysteriously manages to grant his due. After a day of near misses, the two men meet at a neighborhood pub at night, before a company of celebrants, and it's then that Miss Littlewood takes her skein of supposedly tangled threads and, giving it a little tug, reveals that it is, instead, a very artfully constructed cat's cradle, which with still another little tug would fall away into nothing.
The starts of this well-nigh perfect comedy are James Booth and Barbara Windsor, and among the featured players are Roy Kinnear, Murray Melvin, George Sewell, and Avis Bunnage. The photography is by Max Greene and Desmond Dickinson, and the producer is Donald Taylor. My congratulations to all.