The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Jim Cartwright

West Yorkshire Playhouse and Birmingham Repertory Company

Quarry Theatre, West Yorkshire Playhouse

From 05 June 2015 to 04 July 2015

Review by Ray Brown

Straight off: this production received a standing ovation from a lively theatre filling audience. Not many punters clapped politely whilst remaining seated. I was one of them. So you take your choice and you pays your money, or not.

The script is very good and at times brilliant. LV (Nancy Sullivan) is an emotionally damaged, inhibited agoraphobic, living with her boisterous good time drunk of a mother, Mari (Vicky Entwistle). The husband/father has died, leaving LV nothing but a pile of records and a love for female singers.

LV discovers an ability to mimic the singers. She is herself ‘discovered’ by the sleazy Ray Say (Chris Gascoyne), who, against her will, puts her on at the local club, owned by Lou Boo (Brendan Charleson). It’s all booze and exploitation and some killer lines. Luckily LV and a shy assistant phone-line installer, Billy (Tendayi Jembere), fall for each other. And so on.

So why was I close to sitting on my hands? The set was intriguing, music fine, singing fine, in fact almost everything fine to excellent. Except the irritation caused for me and a few others by Vicky Entwistle’s over-stated, over-the-top performance.

It is my rule to praise the actor for a good performance, blame the director for a bad one. But this is a complex one. Clearly the great bulk of the audience loved the performance. Presumably many of them were Coronation Street fans for, according to the programme, Vicky Entwistle has made a thousand appearances in that soap. But so it seems has Chris Gascoyne, and his portrayal of Ray Say had range and depth, hers had not.

There’s a clue in the programme in an interview with the pair of them by Stuart Leeks. "Can you ever actually afford to pass judgement on a character you’re playing?" He asks them both. The answers are revealing. Entwistle: "Never! You must always love your character." Gascoyne: "I think you have to love your character, but not all the time." And I have to agree, there is no way Mari loves herself with the certainty expressed by Entwistle.

Later in the interview she explains how "television is very quick. In theatre you get to bed in; you get to stand in the character’s boots for longer and that allows you explore them more deeply. It can also be frustrating because you want to get there quickly—well, I do! I want it to be at the best level it can be from the get-go." (My italics).

This could explain why her performance came over to me as an impersonation, lacking depth and emotional range. I sometimes felt I was seeing a play about an actor acting herself acting and not very well. Noises Off for example.

There were moments when Vicky Entwistle revealed fantastic talent and theatrical skills. But by and large hers is less of a journey than a frenetic sprint into a brick wall. And since she is in most of the scenes, this gets tiresome to say the least. In fact my partner was all for heading home in the interval. So where was the director?

James Brining is neither a duff nor daft director, anyone seeing his brilliant production of Sweeney Todd knows that. With a panache verging on brilliance he can handle depth, range, stagecraft. Perhaps in these loathsome days of austerity, or, more accurately, redistribution of wealth, he has confused his two roles of director and Artistic Director of the Playhouse. Let his administrative role leach into his artistic one.

If this is the case it is understandable, if unwise. Certainly the AD must be pleased. He has filled his theatre with an excited, excitable audience. Perhaps they deserve better?

Let me finish on a positive note. LV herself is a challenging role, calling for acting skills and a stunning voice. Although Nancy Sullivan’s LV sometimes looks too much like a demonstration of how to communicate timidity, overall her performance is good. And Brendan Charleson’s Mr Boo, along with Tendayi Jembere’s Billy, is faultless.

But there is another character, timid, bulimic, innocent Sadie (Joanna Brookes). Sadie is Mari’s side kick, foil, and servant. When she waddled on stage, after quite a lot of camping and screaming around by Mari, I groaned. Not another stock off–the-shelf realisation of a ‘diamond in the dirt’ (Entwistle’s words).

But no, Brookes breathed life into put-upon good hearted Sadie. It is a stunning, heart-breaking performance with very little dialogue. But Brookes works her socks off. Her subtle expressions and body language create an effect as powerful as some of the best speeches provided by Jim Cartwright.

A fine performance then that kept my partner in her seat for the second half and probably does earn the suggestion—come, see the play, judge for yourself.