Let’s pretend we’re contestants in that popular BBC quiz show, “Pointless”.
“Identify these famous female vocalists, mimicked by LV in Jim Cartwright’s hit play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.”
A: Parisian chanteuse, affectionately known as the ‘Little Sparrow.’
B: Cardiff diva best known for popping her cork and belting out Bond songs.
C: New York jazz/pop singer who won an Oscar, dated a Canadian Prime Minister, and duetted with the BeeGees.
D: Gravel-voiced Scot who had a hit with “Shout” aged 16, and married a BeeGee.
E: Legendary but tragic jazz singer, nicknamed ‘Lady Day’.
F: Over the rainbow mother of Liza Minnelli.
G: Lancashire Mill girl diva who retired to the Isle of Capri.
H: Four-octave range actress/singer with roles from singing nun to magical children’s nanny.
Thirty years on from its premiere (which launched the quirkily talented, Jane Horrocks as a star), you can’t help wondering how many pointless answers you’d get, if you divided tonight’s crowd into groups of 100. I only muse on this because Cartwright’s play draws the kind of audience theatres say they are desperate to attract (i.e. less predominantly white middle class). The casting of popular local actor, Shobna Gulati, in the key role of Mari, no doubt helps, and any who are here specifically to see the former Corrie star are not short-changed. Gulati puts in a high-energy, high-passion, and (appropriately) low comedy performance from curtain up to finale.
The bulk of the action takes place in a rundown terraced house, home to Mari (love-starved, mouthy, needy, funny and yet often hard and heartless). As we open, an utterly sozzled Mari is being put to bed (on the couch) by her long-suffering daughter, known by one and all as LV (Little Voice) because what little she speaks is barely audible. LV (Christina Bianco) spends most of her days and evenings in her bedroom, devotedly listening to records that belonged to her late father – female pop and jazz singers of the mid to late 20th century. (How are you doing with that quiz?) We gain the clear impression there’s been a lot of clubbing and drinking for Mari over the years, and a lot of basic care-giving from LV.
The following day, a telephone is being installed (a landline – this is the early 1990s), primarily so that Mari’s new man, Ray Say (Ian Kelsey), can contact her. Ray is what might be known as a bit of an ‘operator’ – his current thing is managing ‘artistes’ (although, at present, his books feature just two strippers and a performing dog).
When Ray arrives, Mari (for whom the old-fashioned term, ‘mutton dressed as lamb’ might have been invented) leaps into the task of making him feel welcome (euphemism). Uncomfortable and in the way, LV retreats to her room to play her records. Not for the first time, this soon overloads the antique wiring, blows a fuse and plunges the house into darkness. Mari encourages Ray to continue with what Frankie Howerd used to refer to as ‘body Braille’ but her efforts run aground once her daughter, upstairs in the dark, begins to sing. Ray is immediately captivated, for LV doesn’t sing in her own voice, she expertly mimics the singing voices of the divas her dad taught her to love.
Ray sees pound signs. Here is a true star for him to manage (and to milk). But can he get the excruciatingly shy LV to sing to order in front of a paying audience?
A middle class playwright might have presented these desperate, inadequate, ridiculous, occasionally cruel characters like a fascinated, horrified child, peering through the bars of a Freak Show. Cartwright, who grew up in Farnworth, knows them better. He doesn’t hide from or romanticise their rough edges but, instead of a Carnival of the Grotesque, he gives us difficult but rounded characters. What’s more, in typical Cartwright style, he allows each of the central trio a climactic monologue, written with wide-eyed honesty and a hint of demotic poetry, giving insight into how each became the person she or he is.
Kelsey has the best of this as the production stands so far – but then his task is the simplest. An impromptu karaoke performance of Roy Orbison’s “It’s Over” allows him to humanise the self-serving and brutal Ray.
Gulati goes full tilt at her “I never get what I deserve!” speech. She has it in her to break our hearts with this, but the beat is not yet properly marked. We need some space to let go of her wit, her cheap, desperate passions, her malapropisms, in order to feel ourselves being confronted with the full impact of the soul-destroying daily grind she feels she has endured.
“I beseech you. I beseech you. I beseech you.” These closing words, spoken as her daughter walks away from her, feel poignantly misshapen falling from this woman’s mouth. And that’s the point.
LV’s own moment of truth (“You’ve hurt me.”) is most in need of directorial support and guidance. This is an emotionally-abused daughter, silenced year on year by a demanding and domineering mother, finally able to open her mouth and articulate her grievances. Bianco isn’t there yet (neither, particularly at this point, is her Bolton accent). To weigh against that (perhaps more than balance it, given the demands of the piece) her singing has the audience spellbound.
In supporting roles, Fiona Mulvaney gives gormless yet loyal neighbour, Sadie, her all, while William Ilkley handles the gift that is Mr Boo, club owner and compère, with relish. Akshay Gulati delivers a charming, understated Billy (phone engineer, lighting genius and painfully shy soulmate for LV).
That quiz? A: Edith Piaf; B: Shirley Bassey; C: Barbra Streisand; D: Lulu; E: Billie Holliday; F: Judy Garland; G: Gracie Fields; H: Julie Andrews.
Any “pointless” answers? Perhaps not yet. But how about in five years time? Or ten?
Might it be time for a reworking? For Edith, Judy, Billie et al to give way to Whitney, Amy, Bjørk and the like?
Then again, given the packed house and standing ovation (on a Monday night in Salford), Jim Cartwright might just shrug and ask: “Why should I bother?”