Judging from the size and reaction of the audience for Hannah Chissick’s vigorous production of Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Hull Truck Theatre can look forward to a successful run and tour. However, not all is perfect in a play that demands a delicate balance (or, rather, a decidedly robust one) between realism and uninhibited over-acting.
For one thing vigour does not necessarily equate to pace and any production that over-runs by 20 minutes has issues to resolve. For some 75 per cent of its length the play adopts a cinematic, frequently comic approach to a simple, if unlikely, story-line. Mari Hoff, a brassy over-sexed widow whose appetites extend equally to alcohol, has a daughter, Little Voice, who spends all time in her bedroom playing her late father’s record collection (Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, etc.) and, when the house’s dodgy electrics fail, singing the songs herself in an uncanny re-creation of the original performer. When Mari brings home her latest “boyfriend”, Ray Say, a small-time entertainment agent, he recognises that LV is a unique talent – and then the question is whether the painfully shy teenager can reproduce her vocal performance on stage. The later scenes ratchet up the drama with a soap opera-style disaster and bruised confessionals.
Susannah Henry’s functional and appropriate design seems well suited to the rapid second act scene changes, but there is certainly a loss of momentum somewhere. Helen Sheals’ Mari Hoff lacks nothing in energy and commitment, but maybe spends too long in business establishing her precise state of drunkenness. It’s tempting to find her performance too strident, but, as her daughter blames her constant shouting for her husband’s death, then I guess Sheals is blameless in that respect! Lauren Hood makes the most of the scene where Little Voice is transformed miraculously into a night-club singer (the scene of impossible achievement beloved of so many playwrights nowadays) and sings well, even if the Lancashire coloratura of Gracie Fields is beyond her. However, the impersonations are close rather than uncanny.
Neil McCaul oozes silver-tongued insincerity as Ray Say, convincing enough as a character for the revelation of the rat beneath the surface to come as no surprise. The remaining three characters, required to play on one note, do so well enough. Best is Jack Chissick, the club owner and would-be Yorkshire Max Miller, coarsely expansive beneath a wonderfully ill-fitting wig. Philip Hill-Pearson, as Billy the shy boy obsessed by light shows and Little Voice, is suitably sweet without being any more three-dimensional than Lisa Riley’s amiably grinning Sadie, Mari’s neighbour and best (only?) friend.
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is, I suspect, one of those plays that built its success on the unique abilities of the original cast; Jim Cartwright, famously, wrote it having heard Jane Horrocks’ remarkable impersonations. This latest production has no such Wow! effect, but it provides an entertaining evening that hopefully will be at least 10 minutes shorter as the run continues.