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House Music

THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE

The REP, Birmingham, Wednesday 20th May, 2015

 

The first thing that strikes you about this production of Jim Cartwright’s comedy is the set. Designer Colin Richmond gives us a skeletal house, a two-up-two-down framework that revolves between scenes, often with the characters in residence. It’s a remarkable construction in which to house the action – and there are further surprises: the electrics are on the blink, plunging the inhabitants into power cuts, and later, there is a house fire… The setting perfectly supports and enhances the performance style. There is a heightened quality to Cartwright’s dialogue and larger-than-life aspects to the characterisations.

Vicky Entwistle is on great form as Mari, a brash, coarse, loudmouth, mutton dressed as pork kind of woman, fond of a drink and lurching from man to man. In the opening scenes, she browbeats her shy and withdrawn daughter in what is tantamount to an extended monologue. It’s very funny and often vulgar – Mari could have dropped out of a copy of Viz magazine, and Entwistle is relentless in her energetic portrayal. In contrast, Nancy Sullivan as the much-harangued daughter L.V. is quiet, taciturn and self-conscious. When Mari brings home latest fella, Ray (Chris Gascoyne) and a power cut allows them to hear L.V. singing in her room, perfectly replicating Judy Garland, Ray (who turns out to be a showbiz agent, wouldn’t you know it?) decides to string Mari along so he can have access to the daughter and exploit her remarkable talent as a vocal impressionist. If only the girl was willing to go along with his plans, and actually set foot outside the house.

L.V.’s world becomes a little bigger when she attracts the attention of Billy (Tendayi Jembere) who is equally shy but forced from his shell by his attraction to her. Jembere is endearing as Billy, whose confidence grows along with the contact he has with L.V. Gascoyne is deliciously monstrous as the smarmy user, winkling L.V. out of her bedroom, and there is a hilarious comic turn from Joanna Brookes as Mari’s faithful and much-derided neighbour Sadie. Brendan Charleson is good value as club-owner Mr Boo, struggling to tame his Northern club audience, but inevitably, the performance of the night comes from Nancy Sullivan who is utterly remarkable as L.V. She delivers a medley of songs: Bassey, Piaf, Garland, Holliday, Monroe (Marilyn not Matt!)… and that is jaw-dropping, but then even more gobsmacking is an emotional outburst in which she switches from impression to impression mid-sentence. It’s like zapping between television channels. Never mind Little Voice’s small-scale foray into showbiz, Sullivan must surely be on her way to stardom.

Director James Brining keeps energy levels high throughout and Cartwright’s script crackles like the flames that lick at the house. The second act runs a little long, it feels, but when we reach L.V.’s finale, a valedictory rendition of This Is My Life, we are with her all the way, as she brings the house down.

Nancy Sullivan as L.V. (Photo: Keith Pattison)

Nancy Sullivan as L.V. (Photo: Keith Pattison)

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THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE
Malvern Theatres, Monday 8th October, 2012

Jim Cartwright’s in-your-face contemporary fairytale is doing the rounds in this colourful and lively production, which he also directs. It is a fabulously funny night out – to paraphrase John McGrath.

As the audience filed into the elegant Festival theatre in well-heeled Great Malvern, a compere in gold lame jacket cracks jokes and introduces some turns: a spoon-player, a female George Formby impersonator; plunging us into the working men’s club that will feature in the story later on. There is even a raffle – some lucky bugger behind me won the prize jar of pickled gherkins. It all serves to set the tone for a raucous and riotous couple of hours.

The set is a doll’s house, more Fisher Price than Henrik Ibsen, the two-up, two-down residence of Mari (Beverley Callard) and her taciturn daughter, the eponymous Little Voice. Beverley Callard gives the performance of her career in this grotesque caricature of her onscreen persona. Mutton dressed as a parrot. But it’s not all boozing and swearing. There is a kind of poetry to Cartwright’s dialogue, most noticeable in Mari’s lines (perhaps because she speaks the most!). The heightened language and the characters’ names add to the fairytale aspects of the play. This is not gritty realism.

Ray Quinn, the telephone engineer’s mate, is the boyish Prince, who visits Little Voice at her bedroom window as though she is Rapunzel. It’s a sweet portrayal among all the larger-than-life characters. Sally Plumb is excellent as Mari’s big friend Sadie, using her physical presence to great comic effect. Joe McGann is a suitably smooth-talking as the self-serving agent, Ray Say, and Duggie Brown is in his element as club owner and compere Lou Boo.

But the night belongs to Little Voice. In her dramatic scenes, she is vulnerable and shy but when she is called upon to sing, Jess Robinson is nothing short of astonishing. She performs a medley, impersonating a wide range of divas in a dazzling display of vocal ability: Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Barbra Streisand, Tina Turner and even Cilla Black, to name just a few. It is like a whole series of Stars In Their Eyes condensed into ten minutes. And then, later, when Ray pushes her too far, Little Voice lets rip with an even more astounding barrage of impressions, flinging song lyrics at him in the appropriate voices with an almost machine-gun delivery. Brilliance.

As all fairytales should, this Cinderella story ends with the bad ones being brought down and the Princess getting her Prince. It’s been knockabout fun – there was even a game of bingo after the interval – and Cartwright pitches it perfectly. Working class drama doesn’t have to be anguish at the kitchen sink or trouble at mill, or indeed exclusive in its appeal.

The X Factor fodder who infest the entertainment industry (effectively replacing the old variety shows) haven’t the hard luck story of Little Voice, nor indeed a smidgeon of her talent. Go and see live shows, folks, and be uplifted rather than embittered.