Writer: Jim Cartwright
Director: Tom Latter
Reviewer: Scott Matthewman
The shadow of Jane Horrocks is cast long and deep across The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Jim Cartwright’s 1992 play that was written as a vehicle for the actor’s talent for vocal mimicry. As a result of her performance, the impressions of classic singers from Garland to Bassey and Monroe have gained undue importance in Cartwright’s story of a family in crisis – and it’s also the component which the Park Theatre’s new production struggles with the most.
The most dominant voice in the play belongs to Mari, a brash Northern woman who lives for her nights down the club and who has become enamoured with her new fella, talent agent Ray Say. But while Ray returns her affections to some degree, he is more professionally interested in Mari’s daughter, the shy, reclusive LV, who is able to emulate the voices she hears on her late father’s record collection.
From the second Sally George walks on stage as Mari, this becomes her play. Initially played for laughs, her characterisation is as broad and warm as it is grotesque, a post-watershed Bet Lynch with a smattering of Waynetta Slob. Cartwright’s dialogue crackles and fizzes as dangerously as Mari’s faulty home wiring, ensuring that they play’s first act is dominated by a comedic take on Northern working class life.
George is backed up by an entertaining turn by Jamie-Rose Monk as Mari’s largely silent neighbour Sadie. But while that character plays an inability to get a word in in the face of Mari’s relentless chatter for comedy, for LV the consequences of her mother’s relentless tirades are tantamount to abuse and neglect.
Rafaella Hutchinson – who together with George forms the first real life mother-daughter pairing to play Mari and LV – really emphasises the terror behind LV’s neuroses. As she is cornered by the pincer movement of Mari and Kevin McMonagle’s Ray, a towering Glaswegian bruiser of a man, the horror on her face as they attempt to force her to perform on stage is visceral.
This contrasts nicely with the tentative, sweet dynamic between LV and Linford Johnson’s similarly awkward Billy. While Linford’s character is rarely as withdrawn as he is on the page, the juvenile leads’ chemistry works in the play’s favour.
Less fulfilling are the moments where LV is called upon to impersonate classic singers. While Hutchinson’s initial Judy Garland impression, her voice floating down from the mezzanine of her bedroom, is strong enough to persuade that it could stop Ray in his tracks, subsequent performances suffer from a lack of distinctiveness between each voice. And this is where the shadow of Horrocks comes in, leading to audience expectations that the vocal impressions would be on point, distinctive and astounding.
Instead, we get something which is rooted more in the reality of a teenager who spends her days locked in her room listening to records. But Mari’s character is so large and so dominant that LV’s transition from mouse to peacock needs to be just as expansive.
As it is, when the play’s darker, more aggressive second act draws to a close and Billy helps LV find her own voice, there is little difference between that voice and the one we have heard throughout. And much as Tom Latter’s production excels in bringing out the dynamics of Mari and LV’s tragic family life, without the backbone of a strong vocal performance The Rise and Fall of Little Voice struggles.
Runs until September 15 2018 | Image: Scarlett Casciello