Requiem for a reluctant diva

Litle Voice

Little Voice, Nancy Sullivan, dreaming somewhere over a rainbow

The rise and fall of Little Voice

Birmingham Rep

*****

WHEN theatre is good it has the power to generate every emotion from tears of laughter to tears of sorrow, and this Rep co-production is very good.

This is the play which made Bolton born Jim Cartwright’s name and is as northern as donkey stones, dolly blue and hot pot.

It is the tale of a young girl, mourning the loss of her father and clinging on to his memory in her own, uncommunicative,insular world through his collection of records of female singers such as Piaf, Garland and Bassey.

Mari, her mother, in little more than the biological sense, is a selfish, idle, good time girl, with the good times, if they ever existed, long behind her.

She is “something for after the boozer” as her latest of many boyfriends tells her in a moment of cruel home truths.

He is Ray Say, small time wannabe manager of the stars, scratching a living in the seedier end of the club entertainment circuit, strippers and thiMari and Rayrd rate comedians, whose interest in Mari is purely transient and carnal, until he hears her daughter, LV, Little Voice, sing, and not just sing, but sing with the voices of her dead father’s favourite stars – all of them. Ray can smell the aroma of fame and more important, the whiff of fortune. 

Mari, Vicky Entwistle, clings to her man, reluctant Ray, Chris Gascoyne

There is only one snag. LV doesn’t want to be a club singer, doesn’t want to be a star. She is happy in her own, isolated, secure world of records and memories.

Vicky Entwistle, (Janice Lee in Coronation Street), is a wonderful Mari. Widowed, although her late husband probably would see it as an escape, she is gobby, blousy, common as muck, coarse, cruel, tactless and with all the parenting skills of a dolly tub . . . and gloriously funny and, Entwistle being from Accrington, she has an authentic Lanky accent. Incidentally she went to school in the wonderfully named village of Oswaldtwistle.

Chris Gascoyne (Peter Barlow in Coronation Street) is a fine foil. A modern day spiv, a wide boy, flush with cash without any visible signs of support. He is a man always in the middle of some dodgy deal and always looking for the main chance, the ride to the top, and LV is it, even if he does have to tolerate her mother to climb on board.

Nancy Sullivan really does have star quality as Little Voice. Infuriatingly withdrawn at home, hiding from the world, or at least her mother, she comes alive on stage as she sings her way brilliantly through her repertoire of stars from Piaf to Monroe, deray and LVmanding some wonderful vocal dexterity to sound like each one.

Mother and daughter each have their special friend, in Mari’s case it is Sadie, played by TV regular Joanna Brookes, overweight, subservient and with a vocabulary pretty much limited to “OK”. She is used by Mari as someone to lash out at, an emotional punch bag, someone she seems to both despise and depend on in equal measure.

Their celebration at the fame and fortune LV represents, dancing to The Jackson Five is a show comedy highlight.

 

Ray turns on all his cunning charm to convince LV that she really wants the stardom, and manager's fees, he can see beckoning

For LV the friend is Billy, played by Tendayi Jembere, a shy telephone engineer who first saw LV while fitting Mari’s new phone at the start of the play.

They both live in separate worlds of their own, hers a world of divas, his amid his light shows in an allotment shed. Then there is Lou Boo, the talentless compere-cum-owner of the district’s shabby club. Brendan Charleson gives a wonderful portrayal of the worst of comperes for working men’s clubs. He’s crass, witless and full of unwarranted confidence – but at least after him any act will look good.

Mr Boo is the power in the entertainment world, at least in that run-down, back-to-back, factory littered part of town, so has to be looked up to at least by Ray.

Amid the laughs there is a hard story though. The play, first performed in 1992 is set sometime in the 80s and early 90s when Britain and especially the North, and Mari Hoff, Ray, LV and the like, were looking for the light at the end of a tunnel of dark recession. It was a hard time for the working classes and, despite the fact Mari did as little work as she could, she suffered like the rest.

What dreams she still has are faded and Ray is a chance of escape to, if not better, then at least a different life. But she is little more than a sexual diversion for Ray and he destroys her with a cruel tirade of barbed home truths, so much so that we feel sorry for Mari, pmari and sadieerhaps the first time we have seen her as little more than a figure of fun.

Perhaps it is that which makes her turn on LV in a bitter monologue of cruelty after the dramatic climax of the play, which in turn ends LV’s submissive silence in a hate filled monologue of her own, piling even more home truth misery on Mari, whose only answer is to call for Sadie.

Sadie, Joanna Brookes, faithful, insulted, put-upon friend of Mari

Director James Brining has managed to keep the play new and fresh more than 20 years on. Cartwight's characters are real people and Brining has kept them that way, recognisable, believable. He is artistic director of co-producer West Yorkshire Playhouse and he keeps everything moving along helped by a stunning set from Colin Richmond centred on a revolving, two-story, skeletal house.

The house, full of dodgy electrics, has the stained concrete panel walls typical of run down immediate post war municipal housing and sits and revolves in an arena of glitter strips and junk, the back alleys of poor housing mixed with the faded glitter of nightclubs - a wall of glitter descends to turn the set into Mr Boo’s club.

I won’t spoil the plot for those who do not know the story, but the set also has some spectacular special effects.

This is yet another exceptional co-production from Birmingham Rep and one that deserves to be seen. To 30-05-15.

Roger Clarke

19-05-15 

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