Writer: Jim Cartwright
Director: Jim Cartwright
Reviewer: Jane Pink
Living upstairs in her bedroom with a shrieking, drunken mother downstairs Little Voice loses herself in the world created for her by her father before his death. A world populated by divas; women with soaring voices, themselves tormented by tragedy and unhappiness. It is her refuge, a retreat from the real world where she can adopt the voices and sentiments of her heroines in order to survive the loneliness and unhappiness that she feels. We never discover Little Voice’s real name. Her mother has called her LV since childhood, defining her by her shyness and timidity and denying her the opportunity to be heard.
One evening however, her mother brings home the local “Big Fish”, a club promoter and would be agent-to-the-stars who overhears Little Voice singing to herself in her bedroom. He recognises not only her ability, but also the opportunity to exploit her talent to his own advantage. He convinces her mother to let her sing in the local Working Man’s Club and together they put the reluctant Little Voice in the spotlight. After initially being crippled by stage fright, Little Voice delivers an astonishing performance in which the voices of Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Edith Piaf, Marilyn Monroe and a myriad of other singing stars pour from her tiny frame. But her triumph is short lived as the pressure overwhelms her and she starts to fall apart mentally and physically.
The domestic set by Morgan Large is effective and the upstairs level offers a contrast between the drab, chaotic downstairs world and the sanctuary of Little Voice’s bedroom. Cast members plying the audience with raffle tickets and bingo cards, a smattering of club turns and Duggie Brown’s audience-directed patter as Mr Boo gives a sense of a Working Man’s Club which is largely successful.
Beverley Callard as Mari, Little Voice’s embittered, resentful mother, shouts and curses her way through the play with an extraordinary level of energy and gamely sports an array of 80s fashion disasters, staying just the right side of caricature while Joe McGann, as the manipulative Ray Say, could perhaps have afforded to be a little more unpleasant. Ray Quinn’s portrayal of the painfully shy “Telephone Bill”, whose tentative approaches to Little Voice are charming, is sweet and understated with a nervous laugh at the end of every sentence he directs to her. I found Sally Plumb, who said barely a word, incredibly moving as Sadie, Mari’s abused and berated neighbour. She seems to me to be the only character able to see the truth of the situation. She understands Little Voice’s sadness, relates to the way her mother treats her and eventually enjoys a moment of schadenfreude as her “friend” lies surrounded by broken records and rejected by both her daughter and boyfriend.
But the star of the show last night was undoubtedly Jess Robinson. With a career including work on “Dead Ringers”, “Headcases” and “The Impressions Show With Culshaw and Stephenson” there was an expectation of great impressions but her performance is so much more than that. She captures the vulnerability of Little Voice perfectly and the moment at which she begins to fall apart and resorts to song lyrics to defend herself against the bullying Ray Say is incredibly moving. Her moment, quite literally, in the spotlight is extraordinary. As she belts her way through a range of instantly recognisable musical impressions she has the audience in the palm of her hand. I particularly enjoyed Edith Piaf and Judy Garland, and her Marlene Dietrich, transformed with just a tilt of the head and a hair-covered face, is lovely.
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is essentially a simple story and we recognise, and relate to, the characters: an unhappy, lonely girl; a hostile and distant parent; an opportunistic interloper; the chance of redemptive love in the form of a shy young man. Jim Cartwright’s production of his own play met with gales of laughter last night, and I laughed along with the best of them, but for me it was the poignancy of Jess Robinson’s portrayal of Little Voice, the girl with no name, no father and no love that really won me over. In Little Voice’s simple story, with its echoes of fairy tale, the most complex of emotions are revealed in the story of not only her own rise and fall but that of those who surround her.
Runs until Saturday 8th September 2012