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The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Jim Cartwright
Tiny Giant, Neil Gooding and Glass Half Full Productions, Bonnie Comley and Stewart F. Lane and Aria Entertainment
The Lowry, Salford

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Christina Bianco Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
The cast of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Shobna Gulati and Fiona Mulvaney Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Christina Bianco Shobna Gulati and Ian Kelsey Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Christina Bianco Credit: Pamela Raith Photography
Christina Bianco and Akshay Gulati Credit: Pamela Raith Photography

Although essentially the plot of Cinderella, there is a brutal reality running through The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. It is not so much the background of harsh poverty but that Jim Cartwright’s play with music features characters who are hardly admirable and, actually, hard to like.

A young girl known only as LV (Christina Bianco) lives a solitary existence listening to her late father’s record collection, while her mother Mari Hoff (Shobna Gulati) shows little parental care being more concerned with a good night out. However, Mari’s latest boyfriend, Ray Say (Ian Kelsey), is astonished by LV’s ability to mimic famous torch singers and hopes she will further his showbiz ambitions. Mari and Ray, however, are unaware crippling insecurities limit LV’s ability to sing in public.

Although now 30 years old, Jim Cartwright’s script shows its age only with Fiona Mulvaney’s character of Sadie who now feels a bit too close to mocking someone with mental health issues. The dialogue remains a wonderful mixture of malapropisms and genuine cracking lines—"If you’re agoraphobic you can get out."

All of the characters in the play seem unable to face reality. Mari Hoff is written as mutton dressed as lamb, struggling to convince herself she retains some of her fading sex appeal. Shobna Gulati’s deliberately alienating performance pushes the character into a full-blown grotesque. With a voice that could strip paint and overdressed in a leather jacket and too high heels, she is intimidating and self-pitying at the same time. The cut-away walls of Sara Perks’s set not only reveal the inside of the house, they reflect Mari’s chaotic lifestyle and dysfunctional housekeeping.

LV hides behind her memories of her father and escapes from reality by listening to his old records, while her potential boyfriend has an obsession with decorative lighting. It is, however, not easy to relate to LV as she is written as a blank slate—only coming to life when impersonating other people and possessing little personality of her own.

Surprisingly, Ian Kelsey finds dignity in Ray Say playing the character, initially at least, as a true believer in LV’s talent rather than just a chancer on the make. Despite a descent into bullying intimidation, Kelsey’s snarled version of "It’s Over" actually draws sympathy for Ray, whereas Mari’s needy and selfish personality makes it hard to care.

Director Bronagh Lagan draws tenderness out of the material, LV assisting her drunken mother to bed and Fiona Mulvaney standing under a lamppost wonderstruck by LV’s vocals. This approach does, however, reduce the tension in the production; the pacing is steady rather than forceful and, aside from LV’s vocal performances, there are few dramatic moments—no-one really believes Mari and Ray will make a couple, so their break-up is inevitable rather than powerful.

The make-or-break aspect of the production is whether Christina Bianco convinces as LV. She embodies the character perfectly, not just vocally but physically. Bianco is petit with a slight figure and adopts such a nondescript manner she almost blends into the scenery. Bianco’s show-stopping impersonation of famous divas is vocally perfect and is matched by her adopting their physical mannerisms—vamping it up as Monroe or making agonising gestures as Piaf. Bianco excels in the redemptive moment of putting aside her impersonations and finally singing in LV’s ‘own’ voice.

Despite a lack of drama, the current production of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice shows the play retains its power after 30 years and features a powerhouse central performance.

Reviewer: David Cunningham