Brighton Year-Round 2022
Directed by Bronagh Lagan The Rise and Fall of Little Voice features Sara Perks’ Set Design and Costumes. And Nic Farman’s Lighting Design. Andrew Johnson’s Sound Design and Associate Sound Designer Eammon O’Dwyer, Associate Costume Designer/Supervisor Sarah Mercade.
Production Manager Felix Davies, CSM Terry Dickson, ASM Suzi Kelly, Tech Swing Jade Hick-Williams, Associate Lighting Designer/Relighter Joseph Ed Thomas, Fit-Up Carpenter Chris Bewers, Head of Wardrobe David (Daisy) Morgan, Production Co-ordiantor Ollie Hancock, General Manager Assistant Producer Chris Matanlé, Co-Producers Tiny Giant Productions, Neil Gooding Productions, Bonnie Comley and Stewart F Lane, Producer Glass Half Full Productions, Katy Lipson for Aria Entertainment.
Till April 30th.
It’s back. Jim Cartwright’s 1992 play with music The Rise and Fall of Little Voice sings out of damage into heartbreak and redemption. Stylishly directed by Bronagh Lagan with Sara Perks’ cut-away house set remarkable for its pyrotechnics and northern interior, the whole production inevitably turns on the title role created by Jane Horrocks.
American impressionist Christina Bianco is ideally cast vocally. Seemingly an unusual choice, she’s wholly inside LV’s speech-patterns too.
Naturally her entrance as Little Voice is the opposite of a large one. Known as LV, the acronym’s the unnamed teenager’s shrink-wrap identity (in the film she’s revealed as Laura; not here). LV’s the teenage girl grieving for her slighted father and latching on his bequest of diva singer records, which she gradually shows she can mimic with uncanny power: Bassey, Holiday, Springfield, Piaf, Garland, Kitt, Monroe. LV’s life is one long flinch from others and, with her strangulated pitch, Bianco wincingly portrays someone in PTSD mode.
Bianco hunches in on a set with several upper-storey doors and LV’s bedroom stage-left with side-window; and a grime-dark living area with superannuated sofas and electrically chancy cooker. Anyone who’s lived in a northern back-to-back will recognise it, though bricks are browner than usual.
For the club scenes a simple tassellated curtain descends downstage with an arch and Mr Boo’s moniker slumped over it. It’s used in the final scene too, a bit incongruously, when the small coup of another curtain might have nailed a different world.
This production emphasizes the wild physicality of characters: LV herself, Mari the alcoholic man-mad mother with exaggerated pratfalls, especially when getting a friend to zip her. That’s Fiona Mulvaney as Sadie, blockish good-hearted simpleton from next door who at one point vomits into Mari’s handbag. Mulvaney exudes both hapless stupidity and goodness, mastering a vacant blunder; with a volte-face glee at the end. James Robert Moore’s Phone Man succours and swerves Mari’s advances in his single early appearance.
William Ilkley’s Mr Boo the night-club talent-spotter lives one long self-parody in front of an audience he later on treats as if it were attending his night club in a fine high-energy skirl. It’s an impressive act in itself, Boo’s entrepreneurial doubts pushed aside as he bigs up his acts, even when they don’t turn up.
Ian Kelsey sleazes on as manipulative small-time hustler Ray Say who hears that voice and jumps out of his seducing skin, much to Mari’s annoyance and nearly down LV’s throat. Kelsey manages reptilian mock-empathy with LV, yowzer-type pizazz and an almost spitting contempt as each lizard skin slides off him. Watch his bluebird moment and sudden deal-clinch.
Say’s been described as a user abuser and loser. Kelsey brings out – with shuddering conviction – his underlying last-chance terror and failed-Elvis-tribute breakdown. Cartwright’s handling of his final scene with Mari isn’t entirely in character though, and unnecessary. Kelsey makes it a bit more dignified – and less vicious – than some.
Shobna Gulati as LV’s mother Mari explodes everywhere, but everywhere with a pathos of last-chance need. She’s exhortative – and exuberant: ‘Come on, knock out a bit, make way for a woman in lust. ‘ Or encouraging: ‘What’s up with you lot, never had a shag in a Chevy?‘
One unexplored tragedy of mother and daughter is that each contains the half of a diva. LV’s all talent and superb mimicry. Mari’s all sex and temperament but no singer. It’s her tragedy too. Gulati emphasizes the dipsy drunk with wild swings from sexually uninhibited sentiment to sarcasm and vicious abuse – she’s by far the wittiest character on stage and Cartwright ensures we sneakingly sympathise with the one monster who can verbalise their frustrations, even while we wince at it.
Gulati shows vulnerability not in tender collapse but teetering disaster. Her explicit use of an aerosol is just one highlight in a production geared to revel through rather than wallow in Cartwright’s often-wrongly-criticised language – memorable and poetic amidst demotics. You almost forget Mari wants Say and her new telephone more than her daughter.
But if Gulati’s vestigial beau Say with Mr Boo behind him represents one exploitative conga, another long line is attached to telephone engineer Billy, who after a visit with his boss, shyly courts LV in her bedroom window, revealing his passion for creating lights, really for LV’s sake in his grandfather’s allotment shed.
Akshay Gulati – who returns to this part – conveys a similarly subdued (if not strangulated) voice to LV, a touching comical circling around each other as introverts who reach out over a teetering ladder up a pole. A romantic subplot, it needs coaxing to the fiery climax and finale. Gulati’s occasionally too quiet. Happily he’s projects Billy’s warm persistence more convincingly than anyone I’ve seen in this sotte voce role.
LV’s discovery is mesmerising: from her squirming debut and more successful second appearance where she sings all the standards you could wish. It’s a huge moment deserving of the standing ovation at the end. Elsewhere Bianco hunches not just herself but on occasion her voice into upper registers away from her naturally rich, warm mezzo.
Cartwright’s challenge is to prevent the play sagging after the theatrical, vocal climax two-thirds through. This production masks that more than some; the true drama’s in the denouement, but it’s hard to come down from Bianco’s pin-back moment.
The effect’s stylised to a degree, though Bianco’s own smoky register fits Bassey, Holiday, Monroe, Kitt and Garland perfectly, she opens out for Springfield as well as pinching into Piaf’s narrow-bore contralto. Bianco’s true personality is a big one and in her big sequence she combines LV’s hunch with hip-swaying, arm-spiralling bravura. It’s almost too good and not confined to this production: did LV see these singers as well as hear them?
It’s Mari who likes pop though we never get the Doors’ ‘Light My Fire’ which might be apposite – Mari claims she could have set the whole house on fire four times over with her energy. There’s a coup the outfall of which is devastating for all concerned but launches LV’s final bid as her mother abuses her. Defending her father too LV finally turns and raises her speaking voice: ‘He never spoke up to you because you’d never listen. I never spoke up to you because I could never get a word in!’ It’s an electrifying moment, born of electricity. Gulati’s tottering collapse is palpable.
Nic Farman shows how blackness and spotlight attend nearly all of Bianco’s singing performances. Andrew Johnson’s sound carries more than BVs for LV. Eammon O’Dwyer’s musical supervision is full of fluent remix and sudden full-show-stoppers. Sarah Mercade’s associate costume designer/supervisor ought to get a mention alongside Lagan for the sheer quick-change of Mari’s gaudy dress-sense. As well as nailing Say, Boo, LV’s shiver of glitz and Sadie’s cardigans.
Cartwright’s first three plays – the epic and terrible sweep of Road, 1986, Two in 1989, full of duets, and thus set down a trilogy not unlike Willy Russell’s. The difference is Cartwright was active till 2000, when TV work and other projects took him away from theatre for over a decade. He’s been writing again since 2012 and surely now’s the time for his mix of anger and elegy, timeless aspiration and stark want, to shout again. After all, the electricity’s shorting.
Those who don’t know the play or its outcome should see this, and even those who have. A must-see.