The Rise and Fall of Little Voice
Written By Jim Cartwright
Performed by Stagecraft Theatre, Wellington
Directed by Mark Da Vanzo
Venue: The Gryphon Theatre
Season: 6-16 July 2011
Reviewed by Tanya Piejus
The story of Little Voice became world famous in 1998 when it was made into a film starring Jane Horrocks. However, Horrocks was reprising her original role in Sam Mendes’ 1992 production of Jim Cartwright’s less well-known “Northern Fairytale” of a play on which the film was based.
The play tells the story of a shy, reclusive girl named Little Voice and her loud and out-of-control mother, Mari. Desperately missing her dead father, LV as she is known, spends her time locked in her bedroom listening to his old record collection and perfecting astonishing impersonations of famous divas, including Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe, Judy Garland and Dusty Springfield. When Mari starts dating small time club agent, Ray Say, she thinks he's her chance for a better life. When Ray hears Little Voice sing, he thinks she's his ticket to the big time. But all Little Voice wants is a normal life.
Little Voice is a plum role for any actress and singer, and no more so than for Amanda Fearnehough who brings her strong presence and extraordinary vocal talents to Mark Da Vanzo’s ebullient production. It’s a difficult role in the sense that LV is so dominated by her mother that the actress who plays her has to bring LV’s painfully shy and delicate character to life with very little dialogue. This Fearnehough does with wide-eyed skill, then dramatically transforms LV into a confident performer at the first chords of her favourite records.
Julie O’Brien, who plays the overbearing Mari, has also played LV in the past. Her performance in the very different role of LV’s mother is a stellar one. Her high energy and Lancashire drawl make Mari every inch the crass, illiterate, obnoxious bint who would sell her daughter out for her own glory. Most of the play’s many laughs are at her expense and O’Brien laps up the audience feedback with relish. The wardrobe coordinators had their work cut providing her increasingly trashy and inappropriate outfits, which raise even more laughs every time she comes on set.
The rest of the cast provide excellent support. Alan Carabott deftly carries off two roles as the strangely bespectacled Phone Man and the glitzy night club MC Mr Boo, confidently engaging the theatre audience as his club crowd. LV’s love interest Billy, who finally helps her find her voice, is endearingly played by Dale Johnson-Green. His gentle entreaties to LV from the alley outside her window are some of the play’s loveliest moments.
Nick Boxall makes Ray Say a self-interested wide boy rather than the sleaze-bag impresario that would have been the more clichéd playing of the role. All credit to him and the director for avoiding the easy option. Finally, Christine Hunt inhabits weird neighbour Sadie with gusto, her post-night out drooling providing one of the biggest laughs of the night.
Mark Da Vanzo’s direction is assured and creative, just avoiding turning the larger-than-life characters into caricatures. The production has many great moments from LV’s awesome opening impersonation, to Mari and Sadie shaking their ample tail-feathers in the living room. The only criticism of Da Vanzo’s approach is that some of the kitchen-sink northern grittiness of the script is lost for the sake of the comedy.
That said, Tabitha Arthur’s set concept more than adequately captures the dank, grey grottiness of the Hoffs’ hovel with its rotting cornflakes, dilapidated whiteware and dodgy electrics. By contrast, LV’s small upstairs room is a warm, colourful physical and mental sanctuary. Sam Perry and his construction team have done yet another startling job of turning the Gryphon Theatre’s black box into a convincing and imaginative setting for the play’s action.
Lighting is used to good effect and no more so than in the second half where handheld torches and a spinning red construction worker’s light provide the only illumination in the fire-ravaged house.
Billy’s mechanical lift on which he rescues LV from the fire is a master stroke of the beg, borrow and steal culture of community theatre and exemplifies the care and effort that has gone into this lively, moving, beautifully performed and highly entertaining production.