Tonight, Darlinghurst Theatre Company officially opens its 2019 season with The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. It tells the story of a girl hiding away in her bedroom from her boozy mother, Mari, concealing from the world her sizeable singing talent. That talent is discovered by her mother’s male companion, who becomes determined to make a star out of Little Voice.
At the helm of the production is Shaun Rennie, who has a slew of directing credits to his name but is working with Darlinghurst Theatre Company for the first time. This year, he will also direct the Australian premiere of Jess and Joe Forever as part of Belvoir’s 25A season, Sweet Charity for WAAPA and Tennessee Williams’ Baby Doll for the Ensemble Theatre.
Rennie tells Theatre People he’s long been a fan of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.
“I was aware of the play from an album I had as a child called The Further Adventures of Little Voice,” he says. “It’s an album where Jane Horrocks, who was the original star of the play, sang a lot of songs in the style of the divas that are in the show.
“I’ve always thought that, one day, I would love to direct it and, thankfully, [Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Artistic Director and CEO], Glenn Terry, programmed it.”
Written in 1992 by Jim Cartwright and set in a northern English town, the musical comedy became a film in 1998 starring Horrocks. Rennie explains why he wanted to direct a production for the stage in Sydney in 2019.
“Jim Cartwright … said that it’s a contemporary fairytale – it’s a Cinderella story, essentially,” he says. “At the core of it, it’s about a young woman who finally finds her own voice and is able to speak up to more dominant and exploitative forces around her.
“When we were working on it in pre-production, it was around the time of the [Supreme Court Justice Brett] Kavanaugh hearings in the United States, and in a post-Me Too world, it seemed to take on new resonance in the obvious ways … It was written [over] 25 years ago and we’ve made sure it feels contemporary and relevant, hopefully.”
Rennie says the biggest challenge in bringing this show to life has been the production design.
“The script requires a two-storey house – it’s meant to be a cross-section of a house – that burns down, that is destroyed and has a scene that plays out afterwards,” he says. “If we were not going to build a house – which I always knew I didn’t want to do – what is our world and how do we … create a world that allows us to do everything that we need it to do?”
Rennie says the fairytale idea was somewhat the genesis of the design.
“We knew that we wanted Little Voice’s room to feel like her sanctuary, but also like Rapunzel’s tower, essentially – her safe place but also a prison cell, in a way. That was the starting point.”
He says the design process has been a collaboration with production designer Isabel Hudson, lighting designer Trent Suidgeest and sound designer Kingsley Reeve.
“We’ve all been riffing the ideas to create this world with more theatricality than I think was on the page,” says Rennie. “It’s been a really wonderful process and fun. We’ve been riffing on the tower idea and then it’s about … straddling the difference between naturalism and hyper-theatrical gestures, and then figuring out exactly where our world sits in between those two.”
The production stars Caroline O’Connor as Mari and Geraldine Hakewill as Little Voice, as well as Joseph del Re, Charles Wu, Kip Chapman and Bishanyia Vincent.
“It really is a dream cast,” Rennie says. “We’re very lucky.”
“I’m really excited and it’s been incredible to work in a room with people of such calibre and who … are so trusting and brave. Caroline and Geraldine have really taken on the challenges of these two roles. Geraldine has had to learn six or seven different diva impersonations and Caroline’s role barely stops talking … It’s a joy to watch them fly in this show.”
Rennie says The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is a show for anyone who loves a good story.
“It’s hilarious and Jim Cartwright’s the master of creating poetry out of the gutter,” he says. “These characters are down in the gutter and their circumstances are pretty dire, but he … raises it to beautiful, lyric poetic places. It’s really exciting and fun to watch.
“[It’s also] for anyone who loves a Judy Garland tune or a Shirley Bassey tune or a Marilyn Monroe tune … [and] anyone who loves good drama and great acting.”
THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE – SEASON DETAILS
Season: 6 – 24 February, 2019
Where: Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse
Phone: (02) 8356 9987