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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  London Theatre Reviews

 
THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE
at the Vaudeville

SOMETHING IN THE WAY SHE SINGS
By MICHAEL COVENEY

  Diana Vickers/ Ph: Clout Communications

The first major London revival of Jim Cartwright’s 1992 play offers an opportunity to see whether or not the piece stands up as anything more than a former vehicle for the astonishing talents of Jane Horrocks.
Lo, we find that Terry Johnson’s ebullient, full-blooded production is an affirmation of a play that goes beyond operating as an excuse for ventriloquial mimicry. It’s a pulsating domestic comedy, unusual in its punch, drive and lowbrow vivacity.
 
Little Voice, or LV, is a lonely, intimidated child in a small Northern town in the Pennines, somewhere like Burnley or Rochdale, who spends hours listening to her now-dead father’s collection of vinyl records and performing a sort of private karaoke in her bedroom.
 
She’s Saint Joan of the backstreets, visited by the voices of Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Edith Piaf, Cilla Black, Marianne Faithfull, Marlene Dietrich and Dusty Springfield; dad must have been a bit of a showbiz drama queen on the quiet.
 
Her “act” is overheard by one of her mother’s boyfriends, the euphoniously named Ray Say (Marc Warren), an absurd Teddy boy type who fancies himself as an artistes’ representative, so LV performs in a tatty local club, hosted by an emcee (Tony Haygarth) in a red wig that resembles a sleeping fox; but she’s happier when stutteringly serenaded in her lonely attic by a pimply young electrician, Billy, played here by the playwright’s son, James Cartwright.
 
The sparks are flying in all directions, but mainly from the house’s blown fuses and faulty wiring system. It’s a great plus in this respect that designer Lez Brotherston has created a stand-alone dwelling on two levels that revolves to create outdoor scenes while isolating LV’s home as a sort of Lancastrian chamber of horrors and explosions.
 
Most of these are provided by LV’s mum, Mari Hoff (her husband was called Fred, so she was once known, unfortunately, as Mrs. F. Hoff), a rampant alcoholic man-eater who thinks she sizzles the tighter the dress she pulls on and whose stash of booze includes back-up bottles of gin in the bean-bag seating arrangements.
 
The original production by Sam Mendes, which opened in the National Theatre’s Cottesloe auditorium and moved to the Aldwych later in the same year, featured not only Horrocks but also Alison Steadman as this monster, and Pete Postlethwaite as old “Hear” Say. (The 1998 Mark Herman movie starred Horrocks alongside Brenda Blethyn as Mari, Michael Caine as Ray Say, Ewan McGregor as Billy and Jim Broadbent as the nightclub emcee.)
 
Johnson’s LV is 18-year-old Diana Vickers, a semi-finalist in the British X-Factor talent show, who can certainly sing, and is very sweet, but is less spookily skilful a vocalist than was Horrocks (just how skilful a musical theatre artist Horrocks can be is currently revealed in her sly, kooky treatment of the Ethel Merman songs in the new Annie Get Your Gun at the Young Vic). Mark Owen of Take That has written a fairly good final number for Vickers to find her own voice at last.
 
Vickers is good, but she’s not sensational. That epithet can only be justly applied to the performance of Lesley Sharp as Mari, a one-woman bonfire of vanity, coarseness and outlandish, flailing bad behaviour. Literally bouncing off her gloriously obese neighbor Sadie (the excellent Rachel Lumberg, who tops off a Jackson Five routine by somehow miraculously diving into the splits), Sharp comes on like a cyclonic storm.
 
It’s this suburban yet flavoursome appropriation of the Gypsy dynamic—daughter creeping out of the shadow of domineering mother—that gives the play its mythic resonance. And there’s enough bounce and glee in Cartwright’s writing, and in this revival, to suggest that the play really has come into its own again, especially at a time of wall-to-wall talent shows and amateur nights on peak time television on both sides of the Atlantic.
 


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