The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice

It's not just the eponymous seldom heard, often bullied, fragile young girl LV who struggles to be heard in Jim Cartwright's classic tragicomedy The Rise and Fall – finding her voice only when disappearing into (and becoming) the songs of the classic diva records left to her by her late father. For whilst the characters around her are much bigger in both voice and manner, drunken Mother Mari, her wide-boy lover and wannabe 'Agent to the Stars', Ray Say, and even the quietly comic neighbour Sadie are all desperate to find their place – their own voice – in the disappointing world around them.

Shouting and whispering is not quite enough for us to fully rise or fall with this little voice that may just be a little too little.

Getting that depth to the characters can make this 'play with music' as moving as it is funny when done well – the bubbling undercurrent of self-dissatisfaction producing moments of drama to make you weep just seconds after laughing. However this production somewhat eschews that depth, relying as it does on easy big laughs and pleasant singing, to make a show that is perfectly watchable and amusing, but that lacks any more substance that could truly stay with you for long.

It's a challenge in the writing to bring any empathy to the surrounding characters – Mari in particular is the always drunk, loud, desperate middle-aged single mother, whose anger at her empty life manifests in the blame she has for her ex-husband that makes her lash out at 'his' daughter LV for draining the life out of her. It's difficult for us to care with Julie Armstrong's performance here as this desperation is hidden under a constant barrage of shouting at her daughter, her friend and the man she wants (or needs) that is very strong clown comedy and raucous fun but is a little two dimensional to make us care about her downfall.

Her need for a man to make her life whole – and the man in question's need for success to complete his own life - leads them both to exploit Little Voice's talent for mimicry of the likes of Bassey and Garland to fulfil these needs. The central piece of the show - when she is forced to perform 'just once' in a working men's club is the peak of it all: mixing as it should the power exploding from LV's performance with the discomfort she has at being there. This was arguably the performance that made Jane Horrocks famous in the initial production and subsequent film – pulling on the heartstrings and amazing with the vocal impressions.

Comparisons may not be fair but are going to happen for any company taking on a revival of this show. And here the scene feels more like a nice musical interlude – largely due to the fact that the tensions underriding it have been more comic than deep-rooted and venomous. Whilst Sarah Moss as LV gives a very focused childlike and vulnerable performance when caught up in Mari's crossfire, she sometimes seems more unstable than introverted and though there's no arguing that she has a powerful singing voice (and nicely flamboyant facial impressions for the singers), the soundalike quality isn't consistently there (she moves like Bassey but has little of the sexual gravel tone) and so it's more a show filler than a showstopper. There's not enough contrast between the comic and the tragic – and it's not underpinned by a sense of realism – for the high moments to uplift enough or the low to move.

The best scenes are when LV is flirting with (or awkwardly being flirted to!) young Billy – himself struggling to get along with people, getting his enjoyment out of lights the way she does out of song. The two of them together create the strongest sense of realism and when he tells her that "i haven't felt this way since Blackpool illuminations" it finally taps the balance between the comic, the sweet and the sadness. Oliver Burkill gives a strongly invested, very accessible gentle performance as Billy – by far the most rounded of the night – and never falls back on playing lazy cliché or nerd that would have been so much easier.

Overall then it's a fun and well sung production but one that feels like it's only touching at the surface of the script – but there's not a great deal wrong with that and it won't necessarily spoil your night out. The tiny set that has to be the small flat, LV's bedroom haven, the street outside and Boo's club, tries to pack everything in on top of each other, but the misplaced entrances and exits (characters at times just seeming to walk off stage to get out of the way rather than exit via the door for example) and the tendency for the walls to wobble and props to fall over, add to the slightly amateurish feel of the evening. Shouting and whispering is not quite enough for us to fully rise or fall with this little voice that may just be a little too little.

Reviews by Simon Ximenez

National Theatre, Olivier Theatre


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The Blurb

Little Voice hides in her bedroom, locked away with her father's records practicing pitch perfect impersonations of the voices of her heroines - Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Marilyn Monroe and a host of others. Her dishevelled hard-living mother wrecks the house, a series of disreputable gentlemen callers come and go, whilst Little Voice sits listening, dreaming of love and the limelight.

And then she sings, and everything changes...

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