REVIEW: The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, York Theatre Royal

Christina Bianco's LV performing at Mr Boo's in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice. Picture: Pamela Raith
Christina Bianco's LV performing at Mr Boo's in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice. Picture: Pamela Raith

THE Rise And Fall Of Little Voice has a habit of rising again and again on a cycle of major tours.

It might even be argued that Jim Cartwright's epic yet claustrophobically intimate tragi-comedy has been over-done, but its 30th anniversary is as good a reason as any for another revival.

This week's run is not playing to big houses most likely because the cost-of-living crisis is putting a tight squeeze on nights out, with holidays overseas taking priority, rather than Little Voice ennui but Bronagh Lagan's superb production deserves bigger audiences.

She has cast brilliantly, not only in the leads, Christina Bianco, Shobna Gulati and York-born Ian Kelsey, but also in the supporting Akshay Gulati, Fiona Mulvaney and the ever-welcome William Ilkley.

A decade ago, Scarborough's Stephen Joseph Theatre opened its Ordinary Lives, Extraordinary Stories season with 'Little Voice', that theme title summing up Cartwright's bitter yet tender clash of the blitz and the glitz perfectly.

Lagan and set and costume designer Sara Perks retain the 1992 unspecified northern setting in Mari Hoff's damp, run-down terrace-end house with its dodgy electrics, worn furniture, empty fridge, stack of booze bottles and on-the-blink meter. Excitement amounts to the installation of a new phone, bought on the never-never.

That only adds to the noise emanating constantly from Shobna Gulati's heavy-drinking, needy motormouth Mari, flirting in the last chance saloon, while being neglectful of her daughter LV, yet smothering her all the while.

Drowned out by by man-eating Mari's white noise, LV (American actress, singer and impersonator Christina Bianco) is reclusive (but not agoraphobic, she says). Spending days in her pyjamas, she listens to her late father's vinyl collection in her bedroom, perfecting the vocal tropes and mannerisms of bygone divas Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Shirley Bassey and Bianco's new addition, Cilla Black.

As and when necessary, she cleans up after her wild-living mother, whose neediness finds her treating her sugar-guzzling, simple, oversized neighbour Sadie (Fiona Mulvaney) like a comfort blanket to be picked up and discarded on a whim.

Cartwright depicts a dysfunctional, desperate world where lives are stymied by circumstance, but the wish to fly, to escape, to dream, to live beyond means, is omnipresent. LV does so through those records, kept in immaculate condition; Mari does so by placing her eggs in her latest basket: Ian Kelsey's viper-tongued artist manager Ray Say, who sees himself as "the king of this gutter", always on the make, but yet to make it.

When he hears caged songbird LV singing upstairs, while he's romping with Mari on the sofa, Ray thinks he has a pathway to gold at last, if only he can persuade her to perform in public at Mr Boo's tacky club in town.

In the wrong hands, Cartwright's northern drama can become nasty, brutish and brash, even a freakshow, especially Mari, but the key is to locate its heart and to bring balance, to not let the white noise dominate.

Anyone who saw Gulati's Ray in Everybody's Talking About Jamie at Leeds Grand Theatre will not be surprised at her tour-de-force Mari: selfish, grotesque, restless, volatile, relentless, potty-mouthed, over-heated yet devoid of warmth, but vulnerable too, and as funny as she is tiresome.

Bianco has hankered after the role of LV for a decade and what a performance she delivers, mastering an Oldham accent, suitably quiet and diffident yet full of stage presence, and bringing the house down with her myriad voices.

Her contrasting chemistry with Gulati's volcanic Mari and Akshay Gulati's tentative, caring, in-the-shadows telephone engineer Billy is impressive too as he tentatively leads her towards the light and freedom. Pent up for so long, when LV finally speaks her mind to Mari, Bianco finds devastating new heights.

Kelsey's Ray Say has a veneer of charm, but the dark desperation is always bubbling away beneath the sleek yet seedy surface, as the chancer turns to user and abuser. Kelsey's Theatre Royal debut at 55 is long overdue in his home city, and we can only hope more powerhouse roles will follow here.

Meanwhile, William Ilkley's Mr Boo, the club boss with the flatlining patter, is a delightfully observed cameo from clubland's past.

Echoing the heightened language of Greek drama and Shakespeare, yet redolent of Fifties and Sixties' kitchen-sink dramas too, Cartwright's world of outsiders and leftovers elicits fears, cheers and finally tears as LV finds her voice.

In the closing words of Mari, "I beseech you, I beseech you, I beseech you" to buy a ticket this week.

By Charles Hutchinson

The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, Glass Half Full Productions, York Theatre Royal, 7.30pm tonight ; 2.30pm, 7.30pm, Saturday. Box office: 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk ****