North Wales on an Easter Bank Holiday Monday conjures images of fish & chips by the sea, sandcastles on the beach and maybe even some weak Spring sunshine peaking through the rain clouds. However, we at North West End UK are prepared to sacrifice these dubious pleasures in pursuit of theatrical excellence, drawing me to Flintshire for the chance to catch a touring revival of ‘The Rise and Fall of Little Voice’, at the lovely Theatre Clwyd.
Since bursting onto the theatrical landscape like a blazing northern star in the late 1980’s, Jim Cartwright’s work has demonstrated a heady mix of heart, humour, cruelty and pathos in an accessible and pacy form. ‘Little Voice’ examines the failed dreams and aspirations of the working classes, managing to do this without the mawkish sentimentality and overt romanticism of some of his contemporaries (I’m looking at you Mr Loach…)
Now celebrating 30 years since its initial staging at the National Theatre and originally written by Cartwright specifically to showcase the extraordinary talent for mimicry of Jane Horrocks, this defiantly northern tale of LV, a shy little girl with a huge talent, has proved a firm favourite with audiences ever since.
It is undeniable that in parts the writing creaks a little with signs of its age; the treatment of overweight next door neighbour Sadie (Fiona Mulvaney), jars sharply with a modern audience and the myriad mental health issues LV suffers from, would surely gain a more sympathetic ear if written today. However, taken as a snapshot of life on the edge of hopelessness at the fag end of the last century, it still capable of delivering a punch.
Most of the heavy lifting in the piece is done by the redoubtable Shobna Gulati in the role of Mari, mother of LV. Her frustration at her lot in life bubbles constantly under a surface of exuberance, flaring intermittently throughout and then finally bursting through at the conclusion. She combines her roots in comedy and soap opera to excellent effect here, adding a layer cruelty to an ostensibly comedic character. Similarly, Ian Kelsey imbues Ray Say, the oleaginous agent with plausible likeability, until the mask slips away revealing his true nature.
I had some issues with the pacing of the opening act which felt static and clunky and Director Bronagh Lagan allowed some unnecessary verbosity in an overlong second half. The split dolls house set design by Sara Perks was an absolute triumph of economy, allowing every scene to be played against a perfect backdrop and creating a perfect claustrophobia in the auditorium.
Yet, any production of this play stands or falls by the portrayal of LV and thankfully Christine Bianco delivers the goods. We catch initial glimpses of her talent throughout the first act, but the sensational renditions of Garland, Streisand, Monroe and Julie Andrews we eventually see justify the decision to bring her onboard, despite being at least a decade too old for the role.
Overall, an excellent production of a play that despite now showing signs of its age, confronts issues that are as relevant as ever.
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice continues at Theatr Clwyd until the 23rd April, https://www.theatrclwyd.com/event/little-voice
Reviewer: Paul Wilcox
Reviewed: 18th April 2022
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★