Given that it will signify the end of an era at the inventive, resourceful and indomitable Union Theatre, The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice is an inspired choice. The play is funny and sad and thrilling and it turns on music – just as the Union Theatre itself always did. It’s grubby, real and affecting – well worth a final visit to a theatrical space of endless ingenuity.
Space – the final frontier
Those words are indelibly linked to 1960s Sci-Fi Television series, Star Trek, but they are also desperately important in ensuring theatre reaches its zenith. No matter how good the writing, how skilful the acting, how visionary the direction, if the space where the production is played is ill-suited to its essence, the production cannot reach its true potential.
This has always been a concern with any production of The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, Jim Cartwright’s astonishingly insightful look at lives lived in gloom and wretched, alcohol fuelled despair. It’s also a play about loneliness and love, and the price that can be paid for both.
It’s an intimate, personal, family tragedy. However, usually productions are big ones, such as the 2009 revival which played the West End. Big sets, large stages, flashy expense.
Now playing at the Union Theatre is Alastair Knights’ near faultless revival of Cartwright’s play. The space at the Union is the perfect space for this play: slightly seedy, well-worn, inherently of another time, full of ghosts, memories and the melancholic trace of both good times and bad times with people you loved, liked or loathed. But, and this is key, the Union is also a space redolent of hope, of possibility, of the particular joy of escape.
It is doubtful that there is a theatre on the West End which could provide a space as apt and encouraging for this play and, in particular, Knights’ revival. But there ought to be, because this production should be seen by anyone even remotely interested in good theatre. It’s terrific; savage, ordinary and subtle all at once. A true treat – although a devastating one.
Cartwright’s play is a masterpiece. Set in the north of England, it concerns a mother and daughter and their tense, fragile life together. Husband and father is dead; his shadow affects the women in his life permanently. Mari, his wife, is an alcoholic predator, a garish gaudy dresser, a terrible mother and a lousy friend. Little Voice, his daughter, misses him so desperately she has all but withdrawn from the world, wrapping herself up entirely in the beautiful sounds contained in her father’s beloved record collection.
Rather than face reality, Little Voice lives a quiet, insular life in her bedroom, breathing in the work of stars like Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey, Billie Holiday, Vera Lynn, Marilyn Monroe and many others. Their sounds become her oxygen, she lives and survives by copying them, escaping into being them. She has an unbeatable facility for mimicry, one that irritates her mother as much as it sustains her own fragile sanity.
When her mother catches the eye of a brash, two-bit would-be entrepreneur, Ray, she takes him back home for a bit of slap and tickle, but what really tickles his fancy is the glorious sound he hears Little Voice make in the darkness. With complete disregard for her feelings or state of mind, Mari and Ray conspire to make Little Voice a star. What follows is a tsunami of cruelty and raw self-interest, but floating at its centre there is a quiet island of hope, courtesy of a kind, gentle lad, Billy, whose fascination with lighting and lights allows him a special understanding of Little Voice’s world.
With incisive attention to detail, Knights establishes the world of Little Voice and her mother perfectly. Libby Todd assists in no small way by the daggy, threadbare furniture and decor that define the time and the place; her costumes are truly delicious, horrific in their real reflection of poverty glamour. Charlotte Gordon’s Mari gets to wear a disturbingly funny array of tasteless partying garb and bravely she makes it all seem natural and real. Todd’s design really is first class.
The aspect of the production which propels Knights’ work into sensational mode is Jack Weir’s brilliant lighting, which is an entirely integrated part of the production. The shadows which constitute Little Voice’s world are beautifully created – her prison of darkness effectively and comprehensively understood. Weir captures perfectly the state of light one encounters in the middle of the night when entering a home where no lights are on, but reflected light or ambient street light provides a special feeling.
More than that, Weir changes light states to reflect the key moments: the low-rent showbiz aura of the club where Little Voice faces first humiliation, then triumph; the tawdry sex light that fumbles and tickles on lounge furniture are reflected in when lampshades are nearby; the shadows that house furniture casts in the night; the harshness of daylight following a night on the tiles.
But all of that pales in comparison to Weir’s two best moments: the joyously unexpected treat when Billy shows off his lighting installation; and the stunning final segment, when Little Voice finds her own voice.
Light, shadow and darkness is central to the plot and characters of The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice and Weir expertly provides a symphony of shades to ensure the best value is possible for every moment, every performer.
And what a group of performers!
Mandy Dassa gives an award-winning, stand-out performance as Sadie, Mari’s shy, downtrodden best friend. She has few lines but her silence is supremely telling, her expressive face and eyes speak volumes. She vomits splendidly, is the perfect hanger-on, and sublimely communicates the deep pain Sadie lives with daily. Dame Judi Dench could not play this part better.
As the telephone man who is embarrassed and slightly disturbed by the attentions of a lascivious Mari, James Peake is a delight. When he returns in the quite different role of Mr Boo, the lame comedian/host of the club where Little Voice is forced to perform, he is nearly unrecognisable. It’s an effortless but compelling demonstration of gifted acting skills.
Ken Christiansen portrays the slippery, self-interested Ray with skin-crawling perfection. He is part Dad, part cad, part brother, part gangster. There is a marvellous moment when he demonstrates his masculine wiles through tickling Mari, transforming her from raging harridan to giggling mistress with casual authority. The scene where he seduces Little Voice into complying with his agenda is magnificently done – like a virtuoso violinist he plays her with charm and undoubted skill. When he finally shows his true, ghastly colours, the impact is severe. Just first rate in every way.
As is Glenn Adamson, whose Billy is beautiful and kind, a tendril of calm in a garden full of weeds and traps. He and Carly Thomas have a West Side Story moment of silent, longing recognition early on, and from that point, despite everything else, one knows that there is a glimmer of hope for Little Voice to find happiness.
Adamson is completely charming and profoundly naive as Billy and when he confesses his geeky obsession with lights and lighting, even the hardest heart will melt a little. A finely tuned spotlight of hope.
But the play rises and falls on the two female leads and no amount of perfect support would assist a production where Mari and Little Voice were not equal to the challenges set by Cartwright. Without question, Gorton and Thoms absolutely are.
Gorton, like a raging jaguar fed on shots, is in stinging form as the broken wreck of a woman that Mari has become. Everything about her is exaggerated and sad, from her hair to her caked on make-up to her terrible sparkly, shiny clothes and cheap jewellery.
She makes Kat Slater look like Vivien Leigh and she screeches and abuses better than any apocryphal fishwife. Yet, through it all, Gorton permits glimpses of the lonely, self-deluded widow, crippled with unhappiness and yoked by an unrelenting sense of unfairness.
It is remarkable to watch Gorton show the different sorts of desperation which drive Mari – the need for a new man to support her and the need to keep Sadie to be solidly dependable while enduring all the abuse only a true friend can take. It’s a magnificent, gutsy and brave performance from Gorton, immensely powerful and thoroughly shattering.
Much is asked of the actress who plays Little Voice and Thoms gives a stellar reimagining of the role. Here, the emphasis is not so much on the quality of the impersonations, although they are very good (the Billie Holiday would give Audra McDonald a run for her money), but on the fractured, scarred and near shattered psyche of the child-like young woman.
Thoms is completely convincing as a smashed soul, and her persistence with becoming other, happier, talented people her father adored is completely comprehensible in that context.
Her grasp on reality seems gossamer thin, and this explains everything: her tentative attachment to Billy; her fear of her mother wrapped in the barbed wire of her love for her; her distrust of Ray and then desperate capitulation; her life-sucking fear of being exposed as herself on a stage; her silent sisterhood with Sadie. It’s all carefully laid out in a performance which is as graceful as it is heart-breaking.
Her singing is terrific too, especially her Marilyn Monroe, her Vera Lynn, her Shirley Bassey and her foray into Puccini. She has a voice of wide and seemingly unknown boundaries. What is best about all of her impersonations is that they are close copies, well sung in their own right and they have the added flair of being turns for an absent Dad. The only person she wants to perform for she can’t : that is Little Voice’s fate.
But, with Billy’s help, there might be another way – her own, true voice. Thom is inspiring and astonishing in equal measure. She provides a rainbow of emotions with an economy that is exemplary.
This is truly the very best show for the grand old lady that is the Union Theatre to end its era. Knights has delivered a first class revival where not a foot is put wrong by cast or creatives.
This is the kind of intimate production that has done well for the Union Theatre and, in its own way, it salutes all that has gone before it. One doubts there could have been a classier way to bring down the final curtain on one of the best and most risk-taking off-West End venues in London.
Quite unmissable. Rush to see it, in case it doesn’t transfer and you miss the chance to see better theatre than much currently playing on the West End.