Review: The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Derby Theatre. Touring

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Written by Jim Cartwright

Directed by Bronagh Lagan

Derby Theatre – Touring

Tuesday 3rd May – Saturday 7th May 2022

If you are looking for a comedy drama that will make you both laugh and cry, then The Rise and Fall of Little Voice could be just the ticket. The eponymous Little Voice (Christina Bianco), lives at home with her overbearing, self-centred and selfish mother Mari (Shobna Gulati). There is little food in the house, although there is plenty of drink and in a reversal of roles, it is Little Voice (LV) who parents her mother as the latter habitually comes home drunk.

Constantly criticised by the vile Mari, LV seeks solace by retreating to her bedroom and listening to old vinyl records that belonged to her dead father, Frank. All the classic divas are there, including Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Edith Piaf, and Liza Minnelli. What Mari fails to recognise is LV’s prodigious talent for mimicry. That is left to budding impresario, Ray Say (Ian Kelsey) as he consequently attempts to guide LV from the confines of her bedroom and into the spotlight.

Along the way, we meet Sadie (or should that be ‘Say-Day’?), played with delicious aplomb by Fiona Mulvaney, and the sweetly supportive Billy (Akshay Gulati), who attempts to strike up a tentative friendship with Little Voice. Will LV make it into the ‘big time’ and if she does, at what cost?

Many will know the 1998 film version Little Voice, which was specially written by Jim Cartwright to showcase the vocal talents of Jane Horrocks. In my opinion, this production works even better than the film. Bianco is extraordinary. She expresses LV’s timidity and shyness through a beautifully curated range of expression and gesture. It is manifest in the way she might hang her head, delicately handle her record collection, or try out sentences as she attempts to speak.

We hear snippets of her singing capability throughout Act One that leave you wanting more and when she finally ‘lets rip,’ you will not be disappointed. Tiny in stature, but monumental in voice, you can feel the esteem in the audience as she takes us through a repertoire including Shirley Bassey, Peggy Lee, and Julie Andrews. Each one is pitch perfect and I feel incredibly moved by the transformation from ‘agro-phobical’ young woman to singing sensation. Be warned, you may need to arm yourself with tissues.

The set by Sara Perks is also a winner. The replication of a two-storey terraced house, whereby we concurrently see characters upstairs and downstairs, is intelligently conceived and executed. The furniture and props give historical context and I really enjoy the way that characters traverse the set, even climbing out of first floor windows to give added theatricality.

Later, it changes to a tawdry entertainment venue as we enter the world of Mr Boo’s ‘working men’s club.’ In an ironic twist, there is a cut-price proscenium arch, all gaudy gold foil, and lopsided letters as we cleverly become spectators in said club, treated to Mr Boo’s dated stand-up routine before the triumphant turn of LV.

There is a great deal of humour in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, from dark to scatological and everything in between. Mari is the epitome of embarrassing parent. Crass, vulgar, yet very funny; we inwardly cringe as she obscenely flirts with the Phone Man (James Robert Moore).

Shobna Gulati produces a committed performance that is complemented by the seemingly laidback, but manipulative Ray. Kelsey not only looks the part, but also convinces as things begin to sour and he sees what could be his last big chance dissipate. Cartwright’s writing is sharp, piquant, and full of cracking one-liners. Moreover, I defy anyone not to laugh at Sadie in her pop socks dancing to the Jackson 5.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is for all those seeking to find their own voice in a deafening world. Accordingly, if you are looking for a sharply observed, life-affirming show to lift the post-pandemic blues, then I can definitely recommend this production. Like me, you will be leaving the theatre with a head full of ‘belting’ tunes and a smile all over your face.

Running Time – 130 minutes (not including interval)

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