Review: The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at West Yorkshire Playhouse

I was really looking forward to last weekend, and for good reason; I had tickets to the opening weekend of Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at West Yorkshire Playhouse! I’d seen the film featuring Jane Horrocks and Ewan McGregor years ago, but my memory of it was blurry and I was excited to get to grips with the story again. Plus, I really love going to the theatre; good stage acting gives me actual goosebumps.

Little Voice is the story of LV (Nancy Sullivan), a shy introvert who spends her days locked away in her room listening to the records left to her by her deceased father, much to the annoyance of her loud, obnoxious mother Mari (Vicky Entwistle) who prefers to spend her time downing drinks in the local pub and rolling home in the early hours of the morning. However it is soon revealed that LV has a talent; not only can she sing, she has mastered the voices of all the showbiz legends from her records, and can perfectly impersonate the likes of Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey and Edith Piaf. This discovery is quickly made by Ray Say (Chris Gascoyne), Mari’s latest squeeze and sleazy club talent scout, who immediately sees pound signs and seeks to cash in on LV’s gift.

Little Voice is not the easiest play to watch; the characters we are led to emphasise with, LV and equally shy love interest Billy (Tendayi Jembere), by their very natures spend most of the play hiding away in silence, and we are instead subjected to the loud cackles and crass jokes of Mari and Ray. However Entwistle and Gascoyne put in great comic performances to lighten the mood, joined by Brendan Charleson as club owner Lou Boo and the hysterical Joanna Brooks as Mari’s long-suffering friend Sadie – Mari and Sadie’s choreographed dance to The Jackson Five is a highlight of the entire play.

Little Voice isn’t all fun and games, and the cast prove themselves to be equally talented at the heavy stuff as the story develops and darkens. Gascoyne is chillingly vicious in his eventual rejection of Mari, and her consequent breakdown actually stirs up some empathy for this largely unlikeable character. Entwistle also shares a strong scene with Sullivan in which LV finally vents her frustration at the years of rejection and neglect inflicted by her mother and Mari give as good as she gets, betraying her bitterness at being excluded from the close relationship her husband and daughter shared.

With the louder characters monopolising so much of the attention it’s easy to forget about LV, who barely makes a sound until around half an hour into the play. Once she does Sullivan easily steals back the show, belting out her classic show tunes effortlessly and easily filling the auditorium with the strength of her voice. Although I felt that the transformation from terrified wallflower in her first public performance to natural diva in he second was slightly unbelievable, her emotional meltdown in the wake of it is completely convincing. Her angry confrontation with Ray in which she sings in his face while switching songs and voices every few lines had me holding my breath, and was reminiscent of the emotionally draining climactic scene of film Ruby Sparks.

Despite the often heavy subject matter and emotionally-wrought scenes, the end of Little Voice is ultimately a positive one of self-discovery and redemption; as Billy reveals his own hidden talent of creating light displays LV begins to sing, and we realise that this master of impressions has finally found her own voice. These simultaneous progressions by both characters give us hope for their futures both individually and as a couple, however uncertain they may be.

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