The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at Theatre Royal, Brighton.
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice premiered at the Royal National Theatre, garnering winner of the Evening Standard Award for Best Comedy in 1992 and the Olivier Award for Best Comedy 1993.
This Cinderella-esque story centres on the reclusive young woman LV (Little Voice) who lives her life in her bedroom, listening to and singing along with the record collection of her late, much-loved father and trying to avoid the emotional and verbal abuse from her frequently-drunk and chaotic mother, Mari. All this changes when Mari’s latest boyfriend, the sleazy Ray Say, witnesses LV’s uncanny ability to sound like the iconic female singers of the 50s and 60s, and sees a way to make easy money by persuading her to perform in the local club. As dramatic events unfold towards the play’s conclusion, LV finally finds her voice and a chance for a happier future.
The part of LV was originally written for Jane Horrocks, who reprieved the role for the 1998 film (also starring Brenda Bethan, Michael Caine and Ewan McGregor). However, it could equally have been written for the uber-talented Christina Bianco, who stars in this production.
As a successful singer, Christina’s amazing YouTube videos of her impressions of some of the world’s most iconic divas went viral and garnered her a dedicated fan base (some of whom were in the audience on the night of this review), and provided her with her (off) West End debut in Forbidden Broadway at the Menier Chocolate Factory. Let me just say that the ticket price is worth it just to hear her astonishing vocals when her character finally performs the medley of diva songs. Given the expectation of the vocals, she also satisfyingly embodies LV through her diminutive stature, squeaky voice with the necessary Northern accent, but above all, the sensitivity and timing she brings to her every move.
Experienced theatre and television actress Shobna Gulati takes on the difficult role of Mari. Dressed in the worst of tasteless Eighties fashion and lurching drunkenly around the impressively detailed set, Gulati edged the interpretation into caricature, playing the role for all she was worth for gratuitous laughs. This may have been the result of having to play to a very sparse audience in a barn of a theatre on a cold Wednesday night, but the complexity of her character- dealing with poverty, despair, regret and devoid of love -needed to underpin her performance and spark the audience’s interest in what lay beneath her embarrassing and heartless behaviour. Even the moment of raw honesty at the end of the play, which should have drawn us in, was lost in unnecessary physicality.
By contrast, Ian Kelsey’s Ray Say gave us not only the seediness and ruthlessness of the character, but also gave us a glimpse into a genuine layer of empathy which may have been allowed to surface if greed had not been his motivating factor.
Another character open to interpretation is that of neighbour Sadie, played by Fiona Mulvaney. An unlikely friend of Mari, her dialogue rarely extends beyond her repeated ‘okay’-which is amusing if landed correctly-but whose desire for friendship despite Mari’s unkind (and in 2022, uncomfortable) comments usually elicits some sympathy from the audience. In this production, the character is again pushed into an unpleasant caricature which misses the mark.
William Ilkley’s local club owner, Mr Boo, gave the role the necessary presentation skills, albeit dressed in a subdued sophisticated velvet evening jacket where something more garish and ‘showbiz’ might have suited the set.
Akshay Gulati gives a tender and believable performance as the understanding telephone engineer Billy, despite having to perform the iconic ‘ladder-at-the-window ’scene on a 21st Century Health and Safety scaffold tower.
The impressive two-storey set for The Rise and Fall of Little Voice served the piece well, evoking the era through authentic furniture and props, with the street lamp giving added atmosphere, Special effects and sound and lighting design worked well throughout.
Despite some shortcomings of this somewhat dated show, it is worth seeing for the five-star performance of Christina Bianco.
Review by Sheila Arden
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is on at The Theatre Royal, Brighton until 30th April. To find out more about the show, including where else it is touring to you can visit their website.