Review: The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at Liverpool Playhouse ***
Jim Cartwright’s much-loved, award-winning tale about finding your voice turns the big 30 this year.
And while some elements of the play are showing their age, its themes of conflict, communication, escapism, economic hardship and domestic violence remain as pertinent in 2022 as they did in 1992.
Little Voice (Christina Bianco) lives in slummish conditions (evoked through Sara Perks’ imposing, cut through two-storey set) in an un-named northern town with her brassy, colourfully coarse and deeply insecure mother Mari (Shobna Gulati), the two of them chipping out a rancorous co-existence amid the dirty dishes and dodgy electrics.
While Mari embraces the bottle and blokes as a coping mechanism for the disappointments in life, her daughter finds solace from her mother’s bitter barbs in the records of 40s, 50s and 60s divas that are all she has left to remind her of her beloved father.
Interestingly, the same year Little Voice premiered in the West End, Absolutely Fabulous first appeared on TV screens with a similarly dysfunctional mother-daughter dynamic, albeit fuelled by champagne and privilege, not cheap booze and poverty.
A potential way out of that poverty presents itself with the ‘discovery’ of Little Voice’s remarkable ability to mimic the songstresses she worships, but can the shy singer be tempted out of her bedroom and on to the boards?
Above: The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Top: Christina Bianco as 'LV'. Photos by Pamela Raith
The spectre of Jane Horrocks perhaps inevitably looms over every ‘Little Voice’ – it’s the role that really made her a star when she appeared in the original National Theatre production (with Liverpool’s Alison Steadman as her awful mother) and reprised later on film.
But it’s also a role that if Cartwright had been writing it today, he might well have done with Bianco in mind. YouTube’s ‘girl of a thousand voices’ is a pretty perfect fit as the young woman who comes alive when she shrugs on the vocal personas of the female singers her late father cherished.
Indeed, in a modern-day Little Voice, turning its timid heroine into a YouTube or Tik-Tok sensation would probably be the preferred way to fame and fortune. And she could do it without ever leaving the comfort of her own little nest.
Still, this production sticks faithfully to Cartwright’s original setting, which means there are some uncomfortable fat jokes at neighbour Sadie’s expense – as well as the novelty for the many teenagers in the audience (as there were on opening night) of watching excitement over a telephone landline being installed.
Above: Christina Bianco as Little Voice and Ian Kelsey as Ray Say. Photo by Pamela Raith
Gulati really tears up the room as the ghastly Mari, a self-obsessed force of nature in pelmet skirt, smudged mascara and wild desperation who clings to boyfriend Ray like human Virginia creeper, but it would be nice to see just a hint more of the vulnerability which fuels the character.
Ian Kelsey makes for a roguish Ray Say, the faded talent finder who thinks he’s finally lighted on his pot of gold but turns nasty (provoking a short, sharp gasp from the audience) when the little bluebird he’s nurtured and cajoled won’t sing its heart out on cue.
Despite all the sound and fury, the first half feels strangely flat, while the physical rescue of LV by timid suitor Billy (Akshay Gulati) from the conflagration which threatens to consume her fairytale tower could also do with more drama, even if it's just a frantic dash on and off stage ahead of the main action.
Where the evening really comes alive is when Little Voice is finally tempted on stage and a sequin-clad Bianco has the chance to show us what she can do, delivering an uncanny medley of greatest hits from Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe and Patsy Cline to a fine Edith Piaf and (a perhaps slightly less convincing) Cilla Black.
And with Little Voice finding her big voice in a final showdown, there’s a happy ending in the offing for all the young romantics audibly sighing from the stalls.