THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE
THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE, Darlinghurst Theatre Company in association with the Sydney Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras at the Eternity Playhouse, 1-24 February 2019. Photography by Robert Catto: above - Bishanyia Vincent and Caroline O’Connor; below - Geraldine Hakewill; below again - Geraldine Hakewill and Charles Wu
Jim Cartwright’s tragi-comedy from 1992 is an odd piece, ranging from dark trauma (a young woman rendered virtually mute by the death of her father and subsequent hellish life with a hopeless slattern mother) to childlike nonsense. (She is named Little Voice aka LV, without plausible reason, while two male characters are Lou Boo and Ray Say – cue laughter?) The action teeters between kitchen sink realism and broad, blue laffs.
Its main purpose is as a vehicle for two high-powered female actors playing mother and daughter. Originally, in London, they were Alison Steadman and Jane Horrocks; in Australia two years later, for Sydney Theatre Company, they were Amanda Muggleton and Angela Toohey.
Mother must be credible as a calamitous yet touching monster, while the daughter must be able to imitate musical icons of the 20th century. Judy Garland, Shirley Bassey and Billie Holiday are the staples – plus whomever the actor can comfortably take on. (Dusty Springfield and Nancy Sinatra on past mimic lists, this time we are treated to Marilyn Monroe.)
In his post-opening night speech, director Shaun Rennie revealed he has long wanted to do the play and when superstar Caroline O’Connor said yes to the role of mother Mari, it was on. He then secured Geraldine Hakewill for LV and all fell into place.
Rennie also described himself as a “fledgling director” – a fledgling being a fluffy baby bird but also, “a person ... that is immature, inexperienced or underdeveloped.” And it’s at the feet of the fledgling that this production’s flaws should be laid.
Little Voice opens with an extended Scene for Solo Star as O’Connor establishes Mari. She’s a larger-than-life, blowsy, boozy widow with a heart of brass and tongue as sharp as a razor blade. She is also something of a Malapropist but that gets lost in the reckless torrent of words and hi-octane energy that typify an actor looking for sure direction. O’Connor is a marvellous performer who’s saved many sinking ships, but she is ill-served here and that’s a great pity.
In her upstairs bedroom in what is supposed to be a modest terrace house in the north of England, is LV. She has a portable record player and a stack of precious vinyl, inherited from dad. She listens to these records and rarely leaves the room. She drives her mother bonkers.
Mari comes home with a new boyfriend, Ray Say, a talent artist (Joseph del Re). By chance he hears LV singing and it sounds like success. He talks club owner Lou Boo (Kip Chapman) into giving her a spot on his bill. They haven’t reckoned on and then blithely ignore the major obstacle: LV does not want to sing in public, ever.
Observing from the sidelines while eating sugar from the packet is Mari’s neighbour and fat friend Sadie (Bishanyia Vincent). Meanwhile, Mari is having a phone installed and shy young telco worker Billy (Charles Wu) takes a shine to LV.
As already mentioned, the play (with music) is a tragi-comedy and the balance between it working and tipping alternately into senseless cruelty or unfunny farce is a fine one. Mostly, on opening night, it tipped. The moderate standing ovation at the end was surely more a tribute to O’Connor’s presence and unflagging energy than for the overall production.
At the same time, Geraldine Hakewill is a splendid Little Voice: vulnerable, distressing and ultimately the dazzling singing star she so much doesn’t want to be. It’s a startling performance; her Marilyn is pitch perfect and the Garland and Bassey interpretations aren’t far behind.
Joseph del Re is also excellent as man-on-the-make Ray: he’s attractive and a charmer so, when he finally turns ruthless, it’s not only believable but also inevitable, in the life and times of men such as this. Kip Chapman has less to work with in two turns – the chief phone installer and club owner Lou Boo, but he makes the most of the latter.
Bishanyia Vincent is fine as Sadie, a woman whose role in Mari’s life is bestie and punching bag. In the 1990s Sadie was the show’s fun figure – the fat girl everyone could laugh at. (Sadie was Magda Szubanski’s first major stage role.) However, this Sadie is Stan Laurel to Mari’s Oliver Hardy – put upon yet occasionally, there are flashes of anger and defiance.
Charles Wu is also a stand-out. His Billy knows about crippling shyness: in his spare time he builds decorative lighting schemes in his granddad’s shed, although he’d never want anyone to see them. The rapport between Billy and LV is tangible and he’s a delight.
The set makes no sense, visually or otherwise. From left to right, is the detritus of a dysfunctional home: scabby fridge, shabby sofa and so on. Above it, centre-stage on a metal frame, is LV’s room – a deep, white-framed box. The peculiar set leads to weirdness. For example, Ray stays over after a drunken night (on a squalid mattress, stage left). He wanders to the clutter around the fridge, finds a plastic bucket and noisily pees. Is this supposed to be funny or a Look Back In Anger moment? Who knows.
Designer Isabel Hudson has made fabulous work in most Sydney theatres – some, such as KXT, much trickier than the Eternity – but not this time, although lighting designer Trent Suidgeest makes some beautiful pictures. Accent coach Linda Nicholls-Gidley corrals the cast into a recognisable north of England; and musical director Andrew Kroenert has turned in sumptuous pre-recorded orchestrations for LV’s forays into the pop ballad canon. It’s a Mardi Gras Festival show – because of the Garland songs? Another puzzle.