Review: The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Vaudeville Theatre
Published on Culture Wars, 29.10.2009
Aside from the poetic magnetism of its central figure, Jim Cartwright’s 1992 play has little going for it. The entire narrative pivots on a cabaret act of seven or so minutes when the coy little Lancastrian girl reveals the incredible scope of her sound-shifting, chameleonic larynx. All we want to see is Little Voice’s star turn, rattling through the familiar voices of Shirley, Cilla, Edith and Judy. The rest feels like a dragging inconvenience.
Thankfully, Diana Vickers (her off tele) pulls the routine off with aplomb. Though her vocal simulacrums are never quite perfect enough to dumbfound, she consistently catches sufficient likeness to stand in for the greats. Equally, you only get half a sense of vocal chords possessed. The alien voices never quite burst forth intuitively and uncontrollably, but seem instead the result of quite conscious manipulation. The training process of rehearsals is always just about visible and slightly takes the edge of her rawness.
Let’s not get too excited about Vickers, though. Two other monologues – one sung, one ranted – she has to do little more than seek comfort in a baggy brown hoodie, stare at a record-player and be a bit sheepish.
Her casting, however, makes for a curious case. As a role, Little Voice demands a phenomenal vocal performance. Anything less and the entire play collapses, while to just about get away with it is to astound. In effect, we are applauding the talents of the actress for the routine performed and witnessed. It is the feat of cycling through incarnate incantations that impresses. However, the fiction leaves us predisposed to be impressed. We are inclined to applaud because actress and character are spun together. We see before us the reluctant performer that is Little Voice, we know of her father’s death and of her mother’s alcoholic awfulness. The narrative’s purpose is solely to sentimentalize the act and so prejudice us towards applause. In fact, Cartwright’s play is the fictional equivalent of the sob stories that clutter television talent shows.
The confusion, then, comes from Vickers’ own history. As an X Factor graduate herself, we cannot but associate her with Little Voice, as a young girl used to singing into hairbrushes, plucked from everyday life and bunged on a stage. We marvel at the actress, Little Voice and Diana Vickers all at once. The conflated whole strengthened by the mutual support of its constituent parts.
And yet, Vickers’ presence undermines the piece as a whole, given that she is a product of the very industry that Cartwright sets out to attack. Suddenly Ray Say (smartly played as slick as fudge by Marc Warren), the greasy small-town talent agent who ‘spots’ Little Voice on a late night visit to her mother, seems doubly vindicated; astutely ahead of his time, even. To be honest, this seems somehow symptomatic of the production’s true intentions whereby commerce is elevated over statement.
Perhaps, though, that’s fine. After all, Cartwright’s play is something of a fairy tale and, by ignoring the wider socio-political conditions of the time, director Terry Johnson has very deliberately placed the narrative in a bubble. Lesley Sharp meanwhile does her level best to make a pantomime of it all, over-dominating proceedings as LV’s monstrous mother, albeit, admittedly, without ever resorting to stereotype, and there’s strong comic support from James Cartwright and Rachel Lumberg.