Writer: Jim Cartwright
Director: James Brining
Musical Director &Composer: David Shrubsole
Reviewer: Janet Jepson
It has become something of a cliché to say that a production is a “gritty Northern story set in working-class Britain”, but there is no other way to give an overview of The rise and Fall of Little Voice currently playing at West Yorkshire Playhouse in Leeds. The fact that two of the leading characters are played by former actors in the long-running slice of drama that is Coronation Street (who could have imagined Peter Barlow rolling on the sofa with Janice Battersby?!), merely adds to the down-to-earth feel of this intimate examination of family relationships and missed opportunities.
Little Voice (or just LV, she is given no other name) spends her days alone in her bedroom in the northern terraced house she shares with her mother Mari (widow of the unfortunately named Mr F Hoff), and escapes from the reality of her squalid surroundings by listening to records cherished by her dead father. Mari is loud, brash, crude and frequently drunk, yet in contrast LV never speaks, living in the world of her heroines on vinyl, the likes of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey and Edith Piaf. But as we are to find, LV sings, and boy can she sing! Her imitations of all the greatest female voices ever recorded are faultless renditions, and this talent is quickly seized upon by Ray Say, Mari’s latest spiv boyfriend, who happens to be a tacky talent scout. He sees the pound signs dancing before him, and tries his damndest to persuade LV to perform on stage; she could be his step-up to showbiz big-time and the high-life that goes with it. Pushed by Ray and goaded by her overbearing mother, will LV ever find the courage to take the opportunities open to her because of her amazing voice? Will the support of sympathetic neighbour Sadie and gentle, wannabe-lighting-guru, BT Billy be enough to sustain her?
Nancy Sullivan is perfectly cast as LV, with a huge voice that seems out of all proportion to her slight, waiflike frame. She has not just merely learned the songs – and some are not performed in their entirety, just as random unaccompanied lines – but learned to sing them in the particular style of the artiste. Thus we are treated to excellent mimics of Monroe’s sexy tones, Piaf’s nasal renditions, and Bassey’s sheer vocal power, to mention a few. In complete contrast Vicky Entwistle seems perfectly at home as larger-than-life dysfunctional mother Mari. She’s dressed as a common tart and has no housekeeping skills whatsoever, living just for the next boozy night out and cheap thrills with some man she can pick up. Inside she carries bitterness and resentment that she was born into the dead end that is her life, and realises that maybe her daughter could be her way out. Chris Gascoyne as Ray Say is the wide boy, full of fake charm, winning over Mari to get to the goose LV who lays the golden eggs. His swagger, his tattoos and his flashy jackets add to his image, and he plays an almost too convincing drunk… Brilliant supporting parts are played by Joanna Brookes as well-upholstered next door neighbour Sadie, who’s always “ok” and there to pick up any falling pieces (even to the extent of physically carrying LV up the stairs!); and Tendayi Jembere as the sweet BT worker who falls in love with LV and lights up her life, creating his own Romeo and Juliet style balcony scene on the way.
The set is a perfectly convincing model of a real northern terrace. The basic shape is a two up, two down framework of a house with all the details: there are mismatched kitchen units; junk breeds in the lobby; the bathroom suite is avocado green; the china cabinet is full of ancient glassware; and the malfunctioning wiring needs replacing … but that’s another story … To give the drama a sense of time, the action is interspersed with news bulletins of the 90s, and we hear Margaret Thatcher’s unmistakeable tones, sports reports and other snippets.
Jim Cartwright’s drama is written in his own particular style which has the power to both entertain and amuse, yet manages to raise very disturbing themes in society. He exposes life with all its flaws and missed chances, but makes sure to create a few laughs to dissipate the reality. This play makes the audience think that maybe there’s a little of each of the characters inside us all – how we react to our upbringing, life’s knocks and passing opportunities is entirely up to ourselves.
Runs until: Saturday 4 July 2015
Photo Credit: Anthony Robling