At the heart of Jim Cartwright’s play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is a touching, sentimental story of a shy northern girl struggling to get heard by those around her, including her brash and selfish mother, who treats her the same way wicked stepmothers treat their Cinderellas. But at over two and a half hours in length, Cartwright struggles to fill the time with enough plot to make it as riveting as it should be.
The play (which opened at the National Theatre in 1992 and was written specifically for Jane Horrocks) was adapted into a film in 1998, and tells the story of a shy girl who can do stunningly accurate impressions of divas such as Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland and Edith Piaf after listening to her beloved late father’s LP collection. However, the film was significantly more concise in its plotting. Kate Wasserberg’s production of the play packs plenty of wallop when it’s needed, but there are also a few too many moments of ponderous water-treading, moments which allow the audience to shift in their seat, hoping something will happen soon.
This is particularly noticeable in Act 1, where too much time is spent building up characters who don’t require that much time to be fleshed out. The audience gets what the playwright’s trying to do much quicker than he does himself. In particular, LV’s harridan mother Mari, a stereotypical northern sexpot straight out of the Lily Savage school of termagent matriarchs. All the hallmarks of such a part are there – the too-tight leopard skin skirts and heels, the flashing knickers, the sharp, foul-mouthed tongue and the total disregard for the feelings and needs of those around her. Nicola Reynolds throws everything she’s got into Mari Hoff, perhaps more than she should at times, making her a loud, brash, abusive, unpleasant gorgon who cares more about her drinks cabinet and her sex life than her meek daughter. Cartwright may have written the role broadly, but with every part like this, there has to be a more human side, and unfortunately we get to see far too much of the tart and not nearly enough of the heart.
There are moments where Mari lets her guard down and comes across as a real human being, one who feels proper emotions and shows some overdue concern for her clearly needy daughter. There’s a scene with Mari sitting on LV’s bed telling her how much she cares for her, but the fact LV is actually hiding in the wardrobe and isn’t in bed at all leads to Mari exploding into more unpleasant abuse which totally ruins “the moment”. By the end of the play, when the Hoffs’ house is burnt to a cinder and Mari wanders around the ruins in a self-piteous blub, we’re supposed to feel sorry for her, but the fact Mari is by and large a cartoon rather than a person makes feeling anything at all for her difficult. Mari is a wholly unsympathetic character, and any attempts to make the audience feel sorry for her predicament fall somewhat flat.
The riotous, hilarious energy that Reynolds gives Mari is one of the best things about the production – what Reynolds is asked to do, and what she does with it, is the main source of comedy throughout – but it’s the relentlessness of her downright unpleasantness which undercuts the pathos, particularly in the final face-off between LV and her mother. We’re supposed to feel a bit sorry for Mari, and empowered by LV’s triumphant and overdue outburst, but there’s a tendency to think Mari deserves all she gets, and I’m not sure that was Cartwright’s intention at all.
Elsewhere, Catrin Aaron is predictably impressive as Little Voice, a girl with some very complex psychological problems caused by loneliness, grief and maternal neglect. Aaron plays the layers of LV’s damage wonderfully, giving a tiny, restricted, reserved, inhibited performance for most of the time due to LV’s shy, unconfident nature. There’s a lot said in body language, how Aaron holds herself and gets from A to B on stage. Her LV is a visibly tortured soul, heavily affected and scarred by her past and existence, and it’s heartbreaking to witness (the bit when LV almost involuntarily blurts out “Dad-dad-dad-dad-dad-dad” in panic is raw). LV is, for much of the time, almost invisible on stage, and it must be exhausting for an actor to maintain that performance barrier for almost three hours.
When LV does her impressions, Aaron teases us with a twinkle rather than a burst, giving us short, sharp glimpses of Judy Garland and Billie Holiday, before really letting rip in Act 2 for the medley in Mr Boo’s nightclub. Aaron captures LV’s mental agony well, propelling the little mouse into the stratosphere with a walloping rendition of Shirley Bassey’s Big Spender (she gives full cream Bassey, with every vocal and facial tic present and correct), as well as Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich, Judy, Marilyn and a wonderfully down-to-earth Gracie Fields doing Sing As We Go (her body language during the Fields section is eye-poppingly eccentric!).
Simon Holland Roberts pitches talent scout Ray Say just right, managing to balance the character’s inherent superficiality with a depth which really pays off during the scene where he coaxes LV into performing at the club. He gives Ray the right amount of truth to make the tender scene joyful and hopeful, and the audience is right on his side throughout because Ray isn’t bullying or dismissive like Mari, but nurturing and wily in his persuasiveness, playing on LV’s love for her late father and his records to get what he wants (and what the audience wants too, let’s admit it).
There’s able support from Victoria John as drab neighbour Sadie, a role that could quite easily fade into the background alongside Reynolds’ explosion-in-a-paint-factory performance, but which is given real heart and soul by John with next to no dialogue at all. Sadie is one of those very real people who do exist in this world, who have fundamental issues of their own but who just soldier on, get on with life and provide a reliable and dependable presence wherever they go. Sadie is clearly an unhappy woman, but she never complains, she never hits back at Mari’s cutting barbs, she’s just there, always there, with a sugary mug of tea and a capable domesticity. She may look like a sack of sprouted potatoes, but when Sadie repeatedly says she’s “OK”, you can well believe her. The scene where Sadie goes up to LV’s bedroom and basically becomes the mother that Mari’s never been is done beautifully and subtly, directed with stealth by Wasserberg, but also a complete understanding of what the scene represents.
Joseph Tweedale is supremely sweet as Billy, a boy who has his amorous eyes on “Lickle” Voice (the fact he says “lickle” and not “little” instantly propels him into the higher echelons of cuteness – I’m sure there wasn’t a granny in the house who didn’t want to wipe his face with a wet hanky and give him a big hug). Tweedale works hard with what he’s given, but Billy could have been given more presence in the story. The way Cartwright writes some of the Billy/ LV scenes (and to some extent the way they’re directed) makes the developing relationship between the youngsters more of a plop than a fizz. At times ponderous, the scenes perhaps need tightening up to make them as endearing as they should be, because the romance between the two characters that we’re asked to take on board isn’t given enough stage time or clarity to fully latch onto.
Christian Patterson’s rousing rendition of cabaret club owner Mr Boo is the sort of role he was put on this earth to play. Lou Boo is an amalgam of all those northern working men’s club comics who oozed like Swarfega out of prolific 1970s TV shows such as The Comedians and The Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club. Mr Boo is Mike Reid, Bernard Manning, Jim Bowen and Stan Boardman all wrapped into one, but most importantly he is also Christian Patterson, who has bags of personality and charisma all his own. Any actor who can bring the house down with a slight adjustment of his wig is a true comedy talent, but Patterson is savvy enough to know that if he lets rip completely, Mr Boo would steal the show, and the true star of this show should be Catrin Aaron and Little Voice.
Amy Jane Cook’s set is cleverly constructed, being for the most part a straightforward front room and kitchen, with LV’s bedroom housed in a box above the stage. As the audience settles down for Act 2, everybody knows and expects there’s going to be a nightclub scene. But how are they going to do it, because the stage still looks like a northern drudge’s parlour? Then BANG! Cook has a trick up her sleeve which literally makes you gasp, as the stage transforms with impressive showmanship into Mr Boo’s nightclub. I won’t spoil how, but it’s a sight of theatrical finesse to behold.
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is a sweet enough story – essentially a love story with themes of empowerment, grief and miscommunication grafted on – but its length works against the fact there’s not enough going on. The areas for prime development are so obvious that the fact they’re not picked up is frustrating – the romance between Billy and LV only really gets going as the play ends, and throughout the play, as Mari hurls insult upon jibe onto her devoted friend Sadie, you hope and expect the neighbour to turn round and come out with one short, but sharp home truth to put Mari on the back foot – but no, we’re deprived of that small delight. Why is Sadie so maudlin? Why is Ray Say so desperate (his final drunken performance hints at a darkness otherwise ignored)?
Perhaps the best version of Cartwright’s play was Mark Herman’s film adaptation, which is shorter and more succinct in its handling of the main story. There could be more depth of character in this stage version – particularly for Billy and Sadie – but although it sometimes fails to hit the right mark, it manages to give those crowd-pleasing moments people expect, thanks to the studied talents of Catrin Aaron and two full-blooded turns from Nicola Reynolds and Christian Patterson.
Theatr Clwyd, October 5th-28th 2017
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