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The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

by on 29 June 2022

Very Little Voice

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

by Jim Cartwright 

Neil Gooding and Tiny Giant Productions at Richmond Theatre until 2nd July, then tour continues until 16th July

Review by Celia Bard

Hardly seems possible that it’s thirty years since the Award winning comedy-drama The Rise and Fall of Little Voice premiered at the National Theatre in London.   Since then it has undergone several revivals, not only in the UK but in south-east Asia.  The latest incarnation of Jim Cartwright’s creation brings to Richmond Theatre this Cinderella like story of a young girl trying to survive in an unloving and uncaring environment that suddenly changes to one of fame and glory.

The setting of Jim Cartwright’s story is a gritty northern town, switching from the oppressive living conditions of Little Voice’s family, and that of a sordid, low-down night club.  The play follows the rise of a reclusive young woman as she discovers success, and then outlines her emotional difficulties when having to cope with the expectations of others, those of her mother, Mari and of Ray Say, an aging, fading, unsuccessful impresario.

The play was originally written for the Lancashire actress, Jane Horricks, as Little Voice and this critic admits to wondering how the current singer and actress, Christina Bianco, will rise to the task, for Jane Horricks has left an indelible imprint on this character — her ability to impersonate singing stars such as Shirley Bassey and Ethel Merman made her the archetypal Little Voice.  It is a part that truly demands a great deal of any actress undertaking this role.  The task falls to actress and singer, Christina Bianco, a performer who has achieved international fame through her You Tube performances.

This production is distinguished by its highs and its lows.  There are times when the actors, the singing, and the sound and stage effects successfully engage the audience, such as when William Ilkley uses the real audience as his audience in his club scenes, very reminiscent of the Wheeltappers and Shunters Social Club, a British television variety show in the 1970’s, set in a fictional working men’s club.  William Ilkley as Mr Boo was excellent in this role both when appearing on stage, a Bernard Manning sort of character, and in his scenes in Mari’s household. 

Another excellent, all-round performance was provided by Ian Kelsey as Ray Say.  This actor, through his acting ability and interactions with LV and Mari, succeed in bringing to the fore the unseen character in this play, and that is LV’s dead father.  His scene in the bedroom with LV when he persuades her to accept his invitation to appear on the stage as his newly found singing sensation is beautifully subtle, appearing sympathetic, but also manipulating.  Likewise his scenes with Mari are sexy but they are brutal, and they are equally brutal with LV when he slaps her face for refusing to appear on the stage.  Such was the reality of this gesture, you could hear a gasp from the audience.  The same audience reaction was evident when he brutally rejects Mari.  Kelsey is an actor totally at ease on the stage.  He is easily audible and has excellent vocal projection. 

Inaudibility and poor vocal projection is a problem for other actors in this productions.  Shobna Gulati is a superb physical actress.  Physically, she is able to project the character of Mari, an alcoholic, sex-driven, self-centred and a bully of a mother.  However, there is very little light or shade in her performance, and her voice lacks clarity even when shrieking.  She also has the tendency to treat her long speeches as monologues, seemingly totally unaware of others with whom she is venting her venom.

Unless appearing with a microphone, a similar observation is made of Christina Bianco appearing as Little Voice.  Yes, she was able to portray the character of a young girl on the autistic spectrum, and if this had been mime, full marks.  The scene in which Ray first hears her song, left this critic cold, for LV’s voice was small and did not carry.  You are left wondering what it was about this voice that Ray thought was so wonderful, a voice that would see a turnaround in his fortune.  Bianco, however, when using a microphone redeems herself and the audience is treated to a variety of voices depicting such stars as Edith Piaf, Lulu and Judy Garland.  Her final and the last scene in the play when LV discovers her own voice and sings Over the Rainbow is a truly breath-taking theatrical moment, and the production needed this as the play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is a depressing story

The set design is true to the period in which the play is set, to Mari’s personal circumstances and to performance requirements, i.e. split stage, multi-level, different rooms — living room, kitchen, stairs, landing and LV’s bedroom.  There is an outside area with a lamppost, depicting a street and a drop-down glittering curtain, providing an illusionary area for the nightclub.  As an aside, both Ian Kelsey and Fiona Mulvaney coped well with a broken door that suddenly came adrift from its frame.  They didn’t ignore it, they just stared at it, as if to say, ‘what’s happened here?’  (Good examples of actors thinking on their feet.)  Sound and stage effects were certainly successful in conveying the impression of dodgy wiring, eventually leading to a dramatic outbreak of fire.

Fiona Mulvaney as Sadie, had some comic moments and succeeded in conveying the character of a loyal friend to Mari, staying with her despite the latter’s violent mood swings.  She is also sympathetic to LV and comforts her when possible.  Unfortunately, as with the case of Gulati and Bianco, much of what she actually said was inaudible.  Akshay Gulati as Billy, experienced similar difficulties though he was still able to convey a loving tenderness in his interactions with LV.

Richmond Theatre is large and is just one of the play’s production stops on its tour throughout the UK.  One cannot help wondering whether the acting cast have sufficient rehearsal time in their different venues to acclimatise themselves to different theatrical venues and to test out their voices from different areas of the theatre.  Touring is tough for the whole production team, but the quality of the spoken word by actors can make or break a production.  If it weren’t for Ian Kelsey, the use of a microphone and some genuinely funny moments, this production would have had a ‘thumbs down’ from this critic.

Celia Bard, June 2022

Photography by Pamela Raith

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