The mouse-that-roared is one of the pit props of talent quest television and arguably, its ubiquity has blunted the impact of Jim Cartwright’s 1992 play.
But even the real-life stories of Susan Boyle et al, still pale in comparison to that of LV, a reclusive northern girl with a show-stopping voice and the emotional range of a jukebox full of classics.
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is the most sophisticated of that decade-long wave of plays that stormed the West End from the early 1980s (Steaming, Shirley Valentine, Educating Rita, et al), stories about strong, talkative women struggling with and against the strictures of the working and middle class cultures of the time.
None of them struggles so vociferously as Mari (played here by Caroline O’Connor), widowed mum of Little Voice (Geraldine Hakewill).
Like mother, like daughter? Not a bit of it. While Mari works her way through the ranks of available men and broadcasts her resentment and booze-fuelled joie de vivre to everyone in earshot, the stammering, painfully introverted Little Voice (“LV”) spends most of her time in her bedroom, obsessively listening to the records collected by her late father.
When we meet them, Mari at least is on a high: she’s just had a telephone installed and her new boyfriend – minor league talent manager Ray Say (Joseph Del Re) – is shaping up to be something more than a boozy one-night stand.
Then one night, while drunk, Ray hears LV singing her heart out to a record. He hears an extraordinary talent. He sees dollar signs.
But it’s one thing to coax a dormouse into the spotlight. Making it sing is something else again.
While the themes of the play are Cinderella timeless, Little Voice is, inescapably, a play of its own time and place (“Golf with Tarbs and Brucie,” anyone?). For those expecting Coronation St with songs, however, director Shaun Rennie and designer Isabel Hudson have a surprise in store.
Hudson has created a non-naturalistic space for the play, suggestive of a film set: The stage is flanked by what look like oversize anglepoise lighting contraptions; Mari’s bedroom is a rumpled mattress on the floor; LV’s bedroom is an elevated concrete cell covered in charcoal portraits of her musical heroines.
It’s visually impressive, certainly, and underlines the idea of a princess in her tower. But it’s heavy-handed, too. Those who don’t know the play might suppose at first that LV is some kind of serious security risk. Moreover, the supporting steelwork turns the downstairs domestic space into something of a jungle gym for the cast. There is much ducking and weaving.
That said, Little Voice is a play that depends on the core strength of its leading ladies and here, Rennie has powerhouse players at his disposal.
O’Connor is fierce and funny as Mari, a woman whose sense of worth is dependent on appearing 20 years younger than she really is. She delivers Mari’s gritty wisecracks expertly (as you would expect Australia’s preeminent Velma Kelly might) and we get a solid sense of the desperation and fear beneath the brassy surface. O’Connor is Lancashire born, too, and that kind of authenticity is a priceless asset.
Hakewill has fewer words but the harder role, given the extreme stops of LV’s personality. She’s excellent here, alternately twisting herself into a shapeless, grimacing pile or dazzling as Little Voice unloads on her audience.
Hakewill also has the singing chops for the role that was written around the uncanny vocal abilities of British actor Jane Horrocks, though she’s stronger in some voices than others.
Her Marilyn Monroe is excellent. Her Edith Piaf is more than passable. She radiates manic Judy Garland joy in Get Happy. If her Billie Holiday doesn’t rise above pastiche and her Shirley Bassey doesn’t rattle your glasses … well, some divas aren’t described as ‘inimitable’ for nothing.
The story’s supporting roles are less strongly defined, however. Joseph Del Re’s Ray is appropriately caddish but slight somehow and too easily overwhelmed by O’Connor. He does deliver Ray’s brutal parting shot with the required sting, however.
Kip Chapman turns the sleazy, borderline menacing figure of club promoter Mr Boo into a flailing puppet. Charles Wu gently charms as the Prince Charming of this fairytale. Bishanyia Vincent does much with the little the script gives her playing Sadie, Mari’s monosyllabic friend and sounding board.
Rennie directs with a sure hand and this over-long play moves well to interval. The story’s final 20 minutes feel unsolved, however. The creation of a house fire and its aftermath seems to divert the energy of the show inwards (it might help to cut that perniciously flickering neon tube stage left) and the ending of the play feels unresolved, despite the appealing sweetness of its musical finale.