The casting is canny. To play an unknown Northern singing talent, the producers of “The Rise and Fall of Little Voice” hired an unproven Northern acting talent. A recent semi-finalist on TV’s “The X Factor,” Diana Vickers clearly could sing, but could she pull off the title role in a revival of Jim Cartwright’s 1992 black comedy about a reclusive girl forced to perform? With audiences automatically rooting for her, the answer is yes. But neither Vickers nor Terry Johnson’s disjointed production can paper over the play’s cracks.
Obsessively mourning her dead father by impersonating the divas from his LPs, from Judy Garland to Lulu, preternaturally shy Little Voice (Vickers) lives largely in her bedroom. Downstairs, she’s (too) neatly counterbalanced by her working class, man-hungry mother Mari (Lesley Sharp), who is as loud as her largely ignored daughter is quiet.
Enter Mari’s latest man Ray Say (Marc Warren), an aging, two-bit agent who fancies himself even more than he does Mari. The moment he hears Little Voice, he’s set on making her, and his, fortune. Tensions mount as she is pushed unwillingly into the spotlight and, as her talent burns, so do possibilities for an accidental revenge. Cue sentimental conclusion as bad characters are given their comeuppance and young love triumphs.
With a cast as talented as this one going for broke with Cartwright’s lacerating dialogue and foul-mouthed comedy, plenty of punches are landed. But the evening fails to deliver a knockout blow for a number of reasons. Chief among them is the script, which has too many false endings and runs out of steam. But problems are compounded by Johnson’s lack of tonal control.
Vickers underplays nicely as the frightened mouse who eventually roars. But as Mari, Sharp, one of Britain’s most artlessly truthful actors, heads off into the other direction.
Dressed (only just) in designer Lez Brotherston’s marvelously over-the-top, trashy creations, Sharp seizes the comedy with both hands. Teetering on booze and heels, she sways with wild-eyed savagery and shimmers with what Mari thinks is sex appeal. The character is every inch a monster, and Sharp doesn’t spare herself. But you are almost constantly aware of what a bravura performance she’s giving because Johnson hasn’t tethered it to the rest of the cast.
The most winning work comes from Warren, who deftly chooses the middle path. He establishes Ray’s Elvis-like narcissism with a lovely comic swagger but then keeps the lid on everything. His vicious verbal attack on Mari comes, therefore, as one of the evening’s few surprises. The cumulative effect is of watching three actors in three different plays.
Furthermore, although each scene is mined for comic or bruising potential, they work more in isolation than in creating an effective whole. And, with tension dropping when Brotherston’s split-level set wheels around to reveal the street outside or the local club in which Little Voice performs, doubts begin to surface.
For all its examination of a fraught mother/daughter relationship, it’s hard not to catch a whiff of misogyny hanging over the piece. There’s huge and automatic sympathy for Little Voice, but that comes at the price of Cartwright’s presentation of the other women.
Mari has a few moments of vulnerability (played beautifully by Sharp, who shows terror beneath the bravado), but it’s a no-win role. Her (usefully) dead husband is almost deified by the script, and Mari is set up as a grotesquely bad mother who is further punished for liking sex.
Even neighbor Sadie (Rachel Lumberg) is there to be a sounding board — she hardly speaks — but also a comically fat person. Cartwright justifies the treatment by giving her, literally, the last laugh, but he gets there by generating too much laughter at Sadie’s and Mari’s expense.
None of which is likely to upset audiences riding down Vickers’ and her character’s road to happiness. Some of her impersonations, notably of Julie Andrews, are a little wide of the mark, but her dynamo-driven Shirley Bassey proves there really is a voice in there and, happily, it ain’t little.