The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Jim Cartwright
Aria Entertainment and Glass Half Full Productions with Bonnie Comley and Stewart F Lane, Neil Gooding Productions and Tiny Giant Productions
York Theatre Royal

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Christina Bianco (Little Voice), Ian Kelsey (Ray Say) and Shobna Gulati (Mari) Credit: Pamela Raith
Christina Bianco (Little Voice) Credit: Pamela Raith
The cast Credit: Pamela Raith

After erupting onto the British stage in 1986 with the extraordinary play Road—a searing indictment of deprivation in Thatcher’s Britain—Jim Cartwright quickly established himself as one of the UK’s most exciting and compassionate dramatists. The lives of the dispossessed is a recurring theme throughout Cartwright's work, whether it is the neglected plight of the elderly in his sophomore play Bed or the shattered dreams of the pub-goers who populate his minimalist effort Two.

While far more palatable to a mainstream audience than Road, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice combines the latter play’s angry exploration of stifled hopes and ambitions with broad comedy and a quasi-magical storyline involving a musically gifted wallflower. No doubt, it is this heady mixture of despair and escapism that led to it becoming a huge success back in 1992, leading to an Oscar-nominated film version in 1998 and multiple stage revivals over the last three decades.

Little Voice (Christina Bianco), a young woman living in an unnamed northern town, is desperately shy and wants only to be left alone so she can listen to her late father’s records in her bedroom. Unfortunately for LV, she is trapped at home with an overbearing mother, Mari (Shobna Gulati), whose desperate need for love and attention has hardened her heart towards her daughter’s lingering grief.

When Mari manages to drag back flashy impresario Ray Say (Ian Kelsey) to her abode, she thinks that she has found a new shot at happiness. It soon becomes clear, however, that Ray is primarily interested in Mari’s daughter’s amazing talent for impersonation, which allows her to sing like the great musical divas of the 20th century such as Judy Garland, Billie Holliday and Shirley Bassey.

I enjoyed many aspects of this production, but I must confess that I feel more conflicted about Cartwright’s writing than when I last reviewed the show in 2017. On the one hand, there is a lot of funny dialogue to be relished and there is something undeniably pleasurable (and cathartic) about watching LV reveal her singing talents in the second half. Furthermore, some of the writing is extremely poetic, particularly when Mari describes the unhappiness of being married to a man she regarded as her inferior.

What irked me more about watching the play this time was just how exaggerated the characters are, meaning that the play can become exhausting at times, particularly when the character of Mari is articulating her various desires (regardless of whether it’s for a new man or a greasy breakfast).

I do not wish to cast any aspersions on the cast, however, who are uniformly excellent in their roles. Christina Bianco is suitably timid as LV for most of the play, which makes the revelation of her musical talent all the more pleasurable when she gets to strut her stuff in the second half.

Shobna Gulati is terrific as Mari, capturing both the character’s relentless energy and the sadness which bubbles underneath her garish surface. Ian Kelsey is also terrific as Ray Say, managing to convey his empty charm and inner frustrations.

There are fine turns from the rest of the supporting cast. William Ilkley is highly amusing as Mr Boo, the club promoter, and Fiona Mulvaney manages to be both grotesque and poignant as Mari’s underappreciated friend Sadie. Finally, Akshay Gulati makes a likeable love interest for LV as Billy, the tongue-tied phone engineer.

Sara Perks’s split-level set design is a joy to behold, as are the garish costumes which succeed in transporting the audience back thirty years.

While my affection for The Rise and Fall of Little Voice has cooled somewhat in recent years, I still feel that director Bronagh Lagan has managed to craft an entertaining production that audiences across the country are likely to embrace.

Reviewer: James Ballands