Review: The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (Touring)

Monday 4th July 2022 at York Theatre Royal.


This latest touring production of Jim Cartwright’s Olivier Award-winning play features some stellar casting in Christina Bianco as Little Voice and Shobna Gulati as her mother. Under direction of Bronagh Lagan, the pair give Cartwright’s brutal yet witty Little Voice the gusto and heart it deserves.

For those new to the story – The Rise and Fall of Little Voice follows a near-mute daughter (known only as Little Voice) and her wildly overbearing mother, Mari. LV’s only solace in the world seems to be hiding away in her room listening to the great vocalists of yesteryear on records left to her by her father. So while Mari is out looking for laughs and love (or at least a quickie while she waits for Mr Right), LV is home alone in a world of her own. That is until the local Del Boy type overhears LV singing and decides to make her his ticket to Tinseltown – via a few shows at the local dive owned by Mr Boo (James Robert Moore), naturally.

Christina Bianco is best known for her brilliant vocal impersonations, impressive lung power and comedic flair – she delivers on all of those fronts here but as LV, she also takes the opportunity to show a more sensitive side which makes us take LV to heart almost instantly – helped in no small part by the fine balance of gentle humour and convincing vulnerability. The vocal impersonations of greats (Musical supervisor: Eamonn O’Dwyer), from Billie Holiday to Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey are predictably superb but as an American chanelling a broad northerner, Bianco really knows how to impress with her voice sorcery.

While LV is certainly the star of the story, the star of the stage play is undoubtedly Mari – a character who doesn’t say anything that she can bellow instead and has never met a millisecond pause in conversation that she couldn’t fill before a breath was taken. Even while hideous in her merciless picking at poor LV and clinger-on “pal” Sadie, Mean Mother Mari is played to entertaining excess by Shobna Gulati, who never disappoints when it comes to comedic roles. Gulati makes a foghorn seem subtle and her character wouldn’t be out of place in a raucous episode of Shameless, yet even while she goes all-out to make Mari a grim figure as a mother, she grants the character just enough of a tragic streak to make us debate the presence of sympathy for such an attention-starved woman.

Ian Kelsey provides our unmistakeable slime ball type as the opportunist “manager”, Ray Say. Kelsey not only lands Ray smoothly within the remits of charming chancer (in that overbearing, fetch-the-sanitiser kind of way) but he delivers on the inevitable snarling 180 when things don’t go his way. It’s easy to see Mari and Ray as caricatures of grotesque social down and outs, but it’s great to see how well Gulati and Kelsey manage to bring some sobering depth to the pair when they face the harsh realities of their situations. The writing does dip slightly in its handling of more peripheral figures such as Mari’s much casually abused friend Sadie – Fiona Mulvaney gives the limited character a very good run and gets the laughs she seeks, but Sadie remains a comic springboard. Likewise, shy guy Billy is given a sincere, likeable outing by Akshay Gulati but the character is primarily functional in giving LV someone to connect with – there’s scope for more material in both cases, but our attention is pulled elsewhere.

Nic Farman’s lighting designs are at their best in moments of showbiz at the pseudo-glam Mr Boo’s club and the ominous slow-burning catastrophe back at the house, while Sara Perks’ set is fantastic in providing a full scale house across two floors, allowing for split scenes and no fussy set changes. It’s a house rather than a home; sparse and of its time, but it’s cannily configured to allow us to see the stark contrasts between the lives of mother and daughter. Such contrasts are also picked up well in Perks’ costume designs which assign Mari garish get-ups and fashions LV as a plimsoled, pastel-clad home body – at least until she dons more glamorous looks for her time in the spotlight.

Thirty years after its first outing, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice remains a brassy and thoroughly entertaining play, and with this particular cast treading the boards, it’s well worth seeing.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice plays York Theatre Royal until July 9th 2022 – you can find tickets here. The show then completes its tour in Cheltenham and you can find information and tickets here.

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