It’s 20 years since Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice was first performed on stage. Unfortunately, despite winning the best comedy at the Laurence Oliver awards that year and going on to become a hit film with Jane Horrocks in the title role, it is a play that is not seen nearly often enough.
The reason has nothing to do with the lasting quality of the story or the script, which, although a definite period piece, is as relevant today in its human truths and raucous humour – think of a poetical Shameless and you’re there.
Rather, it is the quality of the performances that Cartwright’s script demands that can be so difficult to find. Little Voice has to be able to act her socks off, sing like a dream, and impersonate a whole range of divas – Billie Holiday, Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Shirley Bassey and Marilyn Monroe to name a few. However, until she finds her voice, LV hasn’t much to say, leaving the main comedy of the piece to be carried by the rest of the cast, particularly the central role of her loud-mouth mother, Mari.
Here the Octagon has not let Cartwright down in his home town, bringing together a sterling cast in a highly entertaining production. Katie Elin-Salt plays LV as a girl almost possessed by the spirits of her late father’s record collection, her real strength being the soaring clarity of her voice in the nightclub scenes when, singing with a three piece live band, she jumps from one impersonation to the next.
A red-haired Sue Devaney relishes in the role of Mari, her natural energy maintaining the pace of the production at breakneck speed. It is an incredible performance, both in the range and depth of emotion that she evokes from the part. Mari, tottering around in skyscraper heels and thigh-high skirts, is struggling to come to terms with the passing of time. All “liquor and lacquer” she is brash, foul-mouthed and selfish, with no interest in her daughter until her wheeler dealer boyfriend, Ray Say (Matt Healy) suggests he could make her a star.
Yet, in a play about dreams and broken dreams Devaney brings out the anguish in a character who we feel has never quite got it right, winning the audience’s sympathy as well as their laughter. Terrific support is also given by Healy, both handsome and greasy as the despicable Ray; Sally Bankes, as Mari’s put-upon friend, Sadie, and Max Beesley snr, who brings just the right amount of pizzazz to nightclub compere, Mr Boo, stealing a high kick after every gag.
At almost three hours long, director Elizabeth Newman hasn’t pulled back on any scenes in the play, but the strength of performances makes sure that it flies along. I loved every minute.
The Rise And Fall of Little Voice by Jim Cartwright is at the Octagon Theatre, Bolton from 31 May 2012 to 30 June 2012.