The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Jim Cartwright
Royal Exchange, Manchester

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice - shortened to just Little Voice for the film - tells the story of a young girl, nicknamed Little Voice, who lives with her mother and hardly ever speaks, but has an amazing talent to imitate the singing voice of many of the great divas on her treasured records, left to her by her late father. However this is something she does privately for herself, and when one of her mother's boyfriends sees the chance to make some money from her talent and forces her to sing in public, she is badly traumatised by the experience. Her only friend is a young lad, also very quiet, who came to fit the telephone at the start of the play and who also has a hidden secret - he is building a light show in the shed on his grandfather's allotment.

The quirky cast of characters is played well by this cast. Denise Welch is Mari Hoff, Little Voice's foul-mouthed, hard drinking mother who constantly abuses LV (as she is referred to) and her beloved father. David Hounslow plays the man that Mari desperately clings to until he tells her precisely what he thinks of her towards the end, the smooth-talking Ray Say. He sports a ridiculously large quiff and has a Del Boy approach to looking suave and businesslike. Roy Barraclough is perfect as the club owner Mr Boo; he only has a few scenes with the other characters, but he also comperes the performances in his club, working the theatre audience as though they were his club audience. The neighbour Sadie, who only ever answers "okay" to everything and whom Mari alternately abuses and relies upon, was played by Lorraine Cheshire, who managed to coax plenty of laughs and sympathy from the audience. Andrew Sheridan's Billy, the shy boy who manages to connect with LV, is played with great sensitivity. Anyone stepping into the role of Little Voice has a difficult task to follow Jane Horrocks, not simply because she made an impression (no pun intended) in the role but because the part was written around her particular ability and personality. Emma Lowndes does manage to create effectively the quiet, unhappy, vulnerable young girl who suddenly acquires confidence when she can sing as someone else. She can also sing the songs and does a good medley of some great numbers in the club, but her singing in her bedroom did not sound as though it would make someone passing by stop and look up in wonder.

The set, from designer Liz Ashcroft, manages cleverly to flatten a two-up-two-down house and the alleyway onto one level. The electrical problems that cause frequent blown fuses in the house lead to a remarkable coup de théâtre in the second half, when all the wiring sets on fire and the house is covered with ashes. This is particularly effective - and quite frightening - in this intimate stage space as the flames shoot over the heads of the spectators when the house burns down. The lighting designer Richard Owen manages to show that mirror balls may be old-fashioned but they can still produce a very nice effect. The controlled use of feedback from the sound designer Pete Rice gave a good impression of the average club sound system.

This play is a modern "northern comedy" that manages to steer away from nostalgia and idealism. The characters are quirky but real - much more than simple comedy types - and the language arranges grittily realistic Northern dialect into poetic rhythms. Occasionally the poetry threatens to overwhelm the realism and words appear that do not seem quite right for the character that said them, but most of the time it is very effective and adds a richness to the dialogue rarely found in this type of play. This production, directed by Sarah Frankcom, plays up the many laughs in the script, but there are moments of real tenderness shining through the comedy.

"The Rise and Fall of Little Voice" runs until 21st February

Reviewer: David Chadderton

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