The Rise and Fall of Little Voice continues at the Union Theatre, London until 26 June.
Rating: five stars ★ ★ ★ ★ ★
Since it opened in 1998, Southwark’s Union Theatre has played to innumerable plays and musicals, gained awards for its theatrical space and significantly less praise for its toilet facilities.
Now, this engaging venue is about to transform, swapping the shabby chic of its current railway arch setting for a swanky space in the arch directly across the street. And for a valedictory production, what better than a play about finding escape from a less than ideal environment through the redemptive power of music?
Jim Cartwright’s 1992 play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice sees the larger than life Mari, a woman composed almost entirely of hairspray and vodka, finally find the man of her dreams, only for him to be far more interested in nurturing the vocal talents of her shy daughter, the euphemistically named Little Voice, or LV. A girl who shuts out the world by listening to her late father’s record collection, her talent for mimicking Bassey, Garland, Monroe and Minnelli is one that sees her pushed onto the stage.
In director Alastair Knights’ in-the-round production, the action takes place entirely within Mari and LV’s living room, a mess of ironing and dirty dishes, alcohol hidden under every cushion. In many ways it’s as much at risk of being a caricature as Mari herself – but Libby Todd’s design, like Charlotte Gorton’s portrayal of Mari, stays grounded enough to feel real.
Cartwright’s writing makes it easy to write off LV’s mother merely as a monster, the cause for LV’s withdrawn personality. Gorton also makes her vulnerable and likeable, making the audience sympathise with her even as her daughter finally stands up for herself.
The supporting cast, too, create believable characters. Ken Christiansen’s Ray, Mari’s love interest-turned-LV’s agent, is self-interested without feeling sleazy, expressing concern for LV’s welfare that is as much genuine as it is just telling her exactly what she needs to hear to be able to perform on stage for Ray’s benefit.
Mandy Dassa’s Sadie, Mari’s next door neighbour and put-upon best friend, wrings comedic moments from stolen glances and double takes, while James Peake’s club MC, Mr Boo, has more than a shade of the Peter Kay about him.
As Billy, the young man who takes a shine to LV and gets her to open up, Glenn Adamson cuts a sweet and engaging figure. But it is the character of Little Voice herself that this play revolves around, requiring an actress who can be a timid little mouse one second and a raucous impressionist the next.
Carly Thoms is just such an actress, speaking so softly at first, yet also completely audibly. Her initial impressions, at first delivered from offstage, are spot-on, a match for the prerecorded snippets delivered as part of Andrew Josephs’ impressive sound design.
As the play progresses and LV is called upon to deliver performances from onstage at Mr Boo’s club (a podium in the middle of the same sitting room set), the vocal impressions sometimes don’t land quite so well, although Thoms nails the physical mannerisms sufficiently well to compensate. Overall, it’s a performance that perfectly captures the extremes of the character, engaging the audience wholly.
As Cartwright’s play ends with LV finding her voice at last, so the Union’s tenure in its current space ends with a reassertion of everything it stands for. Theatreland is a fickle beast sometimes, where one is only as good as one’s last performance. With The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, the Union has ensured that it will move into its new home with an exemplary record from its old one.