Multi-award-winner The Rise and Fall of Little Voice premiered in London in 1992 and was later adapted for what became a critically-acclaimed film. Written by British playwright Jim Cartwright, it continues to be performed around the world and, over 25 years on from its first outing, has returned to the stage in Sydney to kick off Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s 2019 season.
Set in Northern England, it centres around a painfully shy young woman, Little Voice or ‘LV’ (Geraldine Hakewill), who lives a reclusive existence, hiding from the world in her bedroom. She shares the run-down home with her boozy mother, Mari (Caroline O’Connor), with whom she has little meaningful interaction. LV’s only real joy in life comes from playing her late father’s records in her room and, after her repeated plays of these recordings, can now uncannily impersonate a host of divas, including Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey and Edith Piaf.
Mari’s male companion and sleazy wannabe talent manager, Ray (Joseph del Re), overhears LV’s powerful impersonations when he visits the family home. Determined to profit from her talent, Ray asks Mari to let him manage LV and organises a performance for her at a local nightclub. Of course, convincing such a withdrawn young woman to perform for a live audience won’t be an easy task, but Ray is determined that LV will be his own ticket to the top, regardless of the cost at which it will come.
The Rise and Fall of Little Voice tells a story that might not be new or different for contemporary audiences, but its central themes – around exploitation, selfishness and finding one’s voice – are still germane. And under Shaun Rennie’s direction, those themes are there in this new staging of Cartwright’s work. It is the story of two central characters both mistreated, both hurting, but one prepared to hurt the other in efforts to pull herself out of her miserable existence. This is a well written piece, with Cartwright’s mix of humour and drama well judged, and situations that still feel relevant in 2019.
The production’s greatest assets are its leading women. O’Connor has recently returned from having played roles on Broadway (Countess Lily Malevsky-Malevitch in Anastasia) and on London’s West End (Anna in Kander and Ebb’s The Rink). Having the opportunity to see her perform in the 200-seat Eternity Playhouse is an absolute joy. She plays the chronically disappointed widow, and while exposing her as totally self-centred and callous towards her daughter, we still see in her portrayal of Mari a pathos, as she struggles with her own demons and desperation. O’Connor never misses a beat and it’s a performance worth the ticket price on its own.
Hakewill’s performance as the mousy LV is similarly a winner. She skilfully conveys LV’s introversion – an existence completely stunted by fear and in which she constantly memorialises her father. When it comes time to reveal the character’s hidden talent, Hakewill delivers, impressing as she channels several divas, each of whom is instantly recognisable.
Del Re plays Ray as suitably slimy and self-seeking, and when he inevitably reveals his honest feelings towards Mari, he ensures the character is every bit as repugnant and misogynistic as Cartwright’s text suggests. Kip Chapman entertains as the local nightclub owner, Mr Boo (though whether moments of audience interaction are strictly necessary or add anything to proceedings is arguable), and Bishanyia Vincent does as much as the character requires, portraying Mari and LV’s neighbour, Sadie. Finally, as the young telephone repair man, Billy, Charles Wu gives us a tender performance. It’s only Billy who genuinely understands LV and has her best interests at heart, and it’s Billy who is pivotal in LV finding her own voice.
Isobel Hudson’s physical representation of the characters’ world is striking at first sight. LV’s bedroom is front and centre – a cold and largely empty box (with walls covered in drawings of the divas with whom she departs from reality) that emphasises her isolation from the world. Outside of the box, the rest of the house is dark, decrepit and chaotic and points aptly to the realities of the occupants’ lives. Trent Suidgeest has done terrific work on the lighting design, while Kinglsey Reeve’s soundscape is fitting and actually enhances the impact of on-stage events.
One addition to the play in this new production is LV’s performance of ‘Quiet’, a song by American singer MILCK that was performed at the 2017 Women’s March (which occurred around the world the day after the inauguration of US President Donald Trump). In an effort to contemporise the piece and suggest the dotted line to the current climate, perhaps this choice was made. But it is slightly jarring in the context of the sound of the rest of the play.
This aside, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is a wonderful start to Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s 2019 season. It’s entertaining, it’s moving and a chance to experience some of our very best talent.
THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE – SEASON DETAILS
Season: Playing now until 24 February, 2019
Where: Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse
Phone: (02) 8356 9987