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The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (review)

Review by Lizzie Guilfoyle

JIM Cartwright’s savage black comedy, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, premiered at the National Theatre in 1992 with Jane Horrocks as the timorous Little Voice and Alison Steadman as Mari, her overbearing, alcohol raddled mother.

The production subsequently transferred to the Aldwych Theatre, a brisk five-minute walk from the Vaudeville where now former X Factor contestant Diana Vickers and acclaimed actress Lesley Sharp are breathing new life into two characters who epitomize the proverbial chalk and cheese.

Driven into the seclusion of her room by her domineering mother, Little Voice seeks comfort by listening to her late father’s records and perfecting faultless impersonations of stars such as Judy Garland, Julie Andrews, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey, Cilla Black, Edith Piaf and Dusty Springfield.

However, her life changes when Mari’s latest boyfriend, small-time working men’s club impresario Ray Say (the talented Marc Warren), overhears LV singing and, against her wishes but to further his own ambition, propels her into the limelight.

In Mari and Ray we surely have two of contemporary literature’s most selfish characters. Indeed, it’s Mari who takes selfishness to new heights – or should that be depths? Her constant self-pitying outbursts are played out with extraordinary panache by Sharp, although on the odd occasion I did find her performance a tad too enthusiastic. A pity because it was then that her character was in danger of becoming a caricature of the heartless tart she was actually portraying.

And she certainly dominated the first act but that has more to do with the storyline than anything else. Accordingly, it’s not until the second act that Vickers has chance to shine but shine she most certainly does.

I have to admit, I’m not a fan of The X Factor so her performance was a revelation. Her transformation from mousy recluse to confident young woman was a joy to behold, and her ability to slip effortlessly from one ‘star’ voice to another was astonishing. And Sunlight, her final song – specially co-written for the show by Mark Owen, Jamie Norton and Ben Mark – was delivered in her own voice and with the assurance of a veteran, not someone making her West End debut – all the more remarkable for someone so young.

Special mention must also go to Rachel Lumberg as over-weight neighbour Sadie whose hilarious Jackson Five dance routine made John Sargeant’s Strictly Come Dancing efforts look decidedly polished. Indeed, the entire cast deliver the goods – from Warren’s opportunistic Ray and Tony Haygarth’s seedy Mr Boo (sporting a bizarre ginger hair-piece) to LV’s love interest, James Cartwright’s painfully shy Billy.

Finally, there’s Lez Brotherston’s sets – the revolving house with a split-level interior and the working men’s club, both of which evoke memories of life as it was in northern towns during the latter part of the last century. And the fire which eventually destroys much of the house is impressive to say the least.

So, whether you’ve seen the original stage production or the 1998 film, or – like me – neither, Terry Johnson’s new production won’t disappoint. It is, in fact, a welcome addition to a West End that already has much to offer the discerning theatregoer.

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