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Review: The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (Theatr Clwyd)

Jim Cartwright's play is revived by Kate Wasserberg at the north Wales venue

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Ever since Jim Cartwright debuted The Rise and Fall Of Little Voice in 1992 it has become a regional theatre mainstay. This summer alone has seen a major revival at the Stephen Joseph Theatre Scarborough and it's unlikely many parts of the country haven't been privy to a performance in the 25 years since its premiere.

It's not difficult to see why it is so frequently programmed. The work, in short, is brilliant. Gritty, hilarious and tender in equal measure, it is a populist smash and brought the press night crowd at Theatre Clwyd to its feet in unison. Whether they were standing for Catrin Aaron's uncanny vocal impressions of the great female songstress', Nicola Reynold's monstrous mum, Amy Jane Cook's versatile unexpected set or Kate Wasserberg's assured production is unclear. Any and all of the four deserve it.

Up in her room, Aaron's Little Voice barely speaks but plays the records of Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland, and Edith Piaf that her late father left her. Downstairs her mum is getting sloshed and trying to convince chancer agent Ray Say (Simon Holland Roberts) into 'a quick roll around'. When, by chance, he hears Little Voice impersonate the divas that she obsessively listens to, it sets in motion the chain of events that may lead them all to the big time.

Cartwright's play borrows loosely from other works; the mother and daughter generation tension from A Taste Of Honey, the desperate need to tell jokes to improve your standing from Trevor Griffiths' Comedians and about not having your own voice when you gain success in another from Pygmalion; but blends these elements together to form his own gold crafted hit.

Aaron's impersonations are spot on, close your eyes and you could be listening to the originals, but it's Hoff who really takes home the plaudits. Squeezed into dresses that are now two sizes too small, she is all mountainous cleavage and booze-soaked chat. Alcohol and sex are, as it turns out, her conduits to forget about her struggles, yet she never makes us stop caring. The work's most affecting scene is when she sits on the edge of her daughter's bed and tentatively reaches out, heartbreakingly her daughter is not in the bed but instead hiding in the cupboard, the moment for connection is lost. Like so much of life, the paths we tread are altered by the slightest of circumstances.

Cook's apartment flat hosts its own surprises, while Little Voice's cube bedroom above spins to create a platform for her performances. Lighting designer Nicholas Holdridge casts the actors' faces in shadow for scenes at a time, it may hurt the adage that comedy needs good lighting to thrive, but it does mean that in lieu of being able to see facial expressions the voice is placed front and central. Wasserberg, recently made sole artistic director of Out Of Joint after Max Stafford-Clark's retirement, heightens the world we encounter from kitchen sink realism. There are lovely little touches, such as the clicking of a flashlight going in time with the clicking of the agent's pen and she orchestrates the climatic scenes with great theatrical flair.

It ensures that the work is a triumph, a true crowd pleaser and surely a hit for Theatre Clwyd. In the two years since Tamara Harvey took over, this theatre in a sleepy but lovely part of North Wales has been given a new lease of life. As I was riding a taxi to the theatre my driver was telling me how he tries to catch everything that goes on there. He is proud to have this theatre on his doorstep. If anything tells you about the continued importance of our regional theatres it is this. I hope he gets to see this. He would, I think, love it.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice runs at Theatr Clwyd until 28 October.