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Review Round-up: Little Voice Makes Big Splash

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The West End revival of Jim Cartwright’s 1992 play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice opened last night at the Vaudeville Theatre, marking the stage debut for 18-year-old X Factor finalist Diana Vickers (See Today's 1st Night Photos).

Vickers plays Little Voice (LV), a shy young girl who can impersonate Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday and other famous divas to perfection, alongside Lesley Sharp as Mari, her alcoholic mother living vicariously through her, and Marc Warren as Mari's lover Ray Say. The cast also features the playwright's son James Cartwright, who plays LV's love interest Billy.

Most critics who saw Little Voice the first time round agreed it has now lost some of its “shock” value, but nevertheless welcomed this rare revival of Cartwright's “rough-cut gem”. Diana Vickers can certainly hold her head high after receiving a raft of plaudits for her “magical” performance as LV, and Lesley Sharp, who was so lauded for her turn as Harper Regan last year (See Review Round-up, 28 Apr 2008) again basked in praise for her powerhouse performance as Mari - “the biggest blast on the West End stage” according to Whatsonstage.com's Michael Coveney. 

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (three stars) - “The play stands up well in Terry Johnson’s no-holds-barred production, with its savage portrayal of a skew-whiff working class milieu in a small Northern town on the Lancashire side of the Pennines. LV’s widowed, alcoholic Mum, Mari Hoff, has set her sights on Marc Warren’s Ray Say … The house is designed on a revolve by Lez Brotherston, allowing full value to the outdoors and rooftop scenes, while the chaotic split-level interior is inhabited by the grotesque posing of Ray as well as the whale-like manoeuvres of Mari’s huge neighbour Sadie, hilariously played by Rachel Lumberg, rounding off her Jackson Five turn with the splits. Mr. Boo, the club manager, is given a nice seedy edge by Tony Haygarth in a precariously applied ginger hair-piece that looks as though it’s been out on the town by itself. But the real star turn here is that of Lesley Sharp as Mari, whose opening twenty-minute salvo of crass, crude self-absorption is the biggest blast on the West End stage, an amazing performance that is then sustained with brilliance and bravura for the whole, slightly over-long duration.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) - “Inevitably, Jim Cartwright's play has lost some of the shock of its 1992 premiere. Then we were amazed when doormouse heroine Jane Horrocks suddenly sang like a woman possessed. Now Diana Vickers, the 18-year-old X Factor discovery, takes the same role with the vocal assurance we would expect. She's good; but we are no longer astonished … The plum role, however, is her mum, Mari, whom Lesley Sharp plays with fizzing energy. What Sharp also shows is the ultimate heartlessness of the raucous, man-hungry Mari who moves from cheery wisecracker to the wicked witch of the north-west; and it is not Sharp's fault if you feel that Cartwright overloads the character with one verbal riff too many. There is spirited support from Marc Warren as the exploitative agent, to whose trousers Mari clings, and from Tony Haygarth as a ludicrous club owner who, unexpectedly, articulates the show's moral, 'blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth'. The sentiments themselves are admirable. But, for all the hectic business of Terry Johnson's production, this is a play that doesn't quite pack the punch it did on a first viewing.”
  • Henry Hitchings in the Evening Standard (four stars) - “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is amusing, affecting and decidedly old-fashioned. Now and then it rambles, particularly when LV’s admirer Billy is to the fore, and there are some undeniably saccharine touches. But it has emotional marrow as well as passages of spirited horseplay and Terry Johnson’s revival accentuates its pathos and hilarity … Lesley Sharp (the lugubriously business-like Louise in Mike Leigh’s Naked), revels in Mari’s chaos and brassy excess. It’s a brilliantly uninhibited performance, especially relishable when Mari is vamping it up to excite her beau. She inhabits every nook of Lez Brotherston’s lovingly detailed design, abetted by her quietly shambolic friend Sadie (Rachel Lumberg, a delight). Hers is the kind of house where there’s gin in the fridge door - and inside a beanbag. This doesn’t unsettle Marc Warren’s Ray, a sort of urban gunslinger who could be a refugee from Peter Kay’s Phoenix Nights. Warren is poised and creepy; he lacks only a redeeming hint of vulnerability. The title role is the key. Created for Jane Horrocks, it belongs here to Diana Vickers, previously known for being a semi-finalist in ITV’s The X Factor. While Vickers’s acting may not have great range, it’s winsome. And when she sings she soars.”
  • Charles Spencer in The Daily Telegraph (four stars) - “It is nights like this that make my job both a privilege and a pleasure … Having endured more than my fair share of trial by light entertainment over the years, I have always given the show a miss. But what’s remarkable about encountering Diana Vickers for the first time on stage is that it turns out that she can act as well as sing, and more than hold her own in the company of seasoned professionals. Cartwright’s play is a rough-cut gem, blessed with filthy jokes, outlandish characters, and moments of both sentimentality and savagery. It has its faults: the author overdoes the vernacular stage poetry, like some word-drunk Dylan Thomas of the Lancashire mill-towns, and there are moments, even in a production whipped along by that great master of popular theatre, Terry Johnson, when the pace flags … Vickers, clutching her knees to her chest, brings a poignant buttoned-up grief and fear to Little Voice, and is magical when she sings. And there is terrific support from Mark Warren as the odious Ray Say; Rachel Lumberg as Mari’s fat friend who astonishes the house by performing the splits; James Cartwright (son of the playwright) as LV’s shy admirer and Tony Haygarth as a sleazy MC in a hilariously improbable toupee. Popular theatre doesn’t come much better than this.”
  • Quentin Letts in the Daily Mail - “Bravo, Diana Vickers. The teenager, familiar to TV viewers of last year's X Factor, hit the West End last night and gave a five-star creamer of a performance. All right, the show itself is probably only a three-star job, but Miss Vickers's voice growls from nought to sixty faster than an Aston Martin … It probably suits Miss Vickers that the part does not call for too much speaking. She is at her best - her considerable best - when she has a microphone in her hands … Comedy and pathos is supplied by fat Sadie the next door neighbour, delivered with exquisite poise by Rachel Lumberg. At one point Sadie, bopping to some music, does the splits. The whole audience gasped … The show moves a little slowly and the gallant Miss Sharp - at times so brassily northern that she is incomprehensible - has to carry more of the burden than is feasible. But there is no doubt about the star of the show. Miss Vickers is a scorcher.”
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