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The Rise and Fall of Little Voice


British Theatre Playhouse








Jubilee Hall, Raffles Hotel



Sing Something Simple

The producers of the British Theatre Playhouse are the first to admit that they had been producing plays mainly concerned with middle and upper class England, and they sought to break out of this pattern with The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Set in Northern England and populated by coarse characters living in distinctly slovenly conditions, Little Voice was indeed "far from the society-salons of Oscar Wilde".

This setting befitted the play, in which poverty underscored much of the desperation and anger that drove its main characters. Single mother, malingering factory worker and alcoholic Mari Hoff (played spectacularly by Sandra Duncan) is desperate for a new life, and she gets her break when her boyfriend Ray (John McArdle) discovers that her painfully shy daughter Little Voice or LV (Rachael Wood) has a marvellous singing voice. A descent into greed and exploitation follows, before mother and daughter have a terrible confrontation.

The masterful treatment of this dark subject matter by playwright Jim Cartwright gave us a black comedy which teetered constantly on the edge of something raw and subtle, much in the same way that Mari Hoff teetered precariously on her white stilettos, constantly threatening to fall apart. Little Voice enticed us to guffaw at the slovenly conditions of its lower-to-middle class characters, only to turn our laugher into a slightly shamed silence when their vulnerable, pathetic insides emerged. Sandra Duncan stole the show as the loud, clownish Mari Hoff, whose atrocious housekeeping, disastrous attempts at sexiness and alcohol dependency were all mined for their comic potential. She was crass and materialistic and completely hilarious. Mari's slow-witted and overweight friend Sadie (Michelle McManus) was also fodder for jokes which fed on the mean old tradition of mocking the unfortunate and weak.

The success of the humorous moments can be attributed to the sizzling cast chemistry and razor-sharp direction by Alexander Holt. But less simple - and more memorable - was how Holt wove in little lightning bolts of brutal reality into the broad comedic moments. A put down of Mari by Ray, a tragi-comic wistful moment when Mari tries to show LV her tender side, or the sheer sordid desperation of Ray and his business partner, all added to the growing discomfort of the audience. Without this set-up, Duncan might not have switched credibly from a slapstick character to one with pain-filled inner complexities worth exploring.

The weakest link was the character of LV. While Rachael Wood boasted an awesome singing voice, her put-on squeak of a speaking voice did her character little justice. It was hard to find a reason to care about LV's painful shyness and mysterious singing ability. Perhaps there was an endemic problem with the playwright's vision for LV - he gave the character of LV little more than the ability to sing. A questionable director's choice was that of vamping up LV's performance of sultry tunes like "I wanna be loved by you" with come hither moves. I suspect LV could not have learnt those moves from old records alone - unless she snuck in the viewing of MTVs as well.

Wood's "sing-acting" however deserves attention for its strength, and this was put to good use in Little Voice. In one scene where she was being threatened by Ray, LV sang furiously but fearlessly, switching from melody to melody like a human radio. In this scene of violence and music, the clash of the visual and aural created an intense, destabilising effect.

With excellent pacing, skilful acting and direction, Little Voice turned out to be a thoroughly enjoyable and thought-provoking work.

"A black comedy which teetered constantly on the edge of something raw and subtle"


Starring James Cartwright, Richard Denning, Sandra Duncan, John McArdle, Michelle McManus and Rachael Wood

Designed by Norman Coates

Musical direction by Stuart Barr

Lighting designed by Andy Lim

More Reviews by Deanne Tan

Ratings out of 5, based on Practitioner's Vision / Reviewer's Response: ***** = Transcendent / Rapturous;
**** = Crystal / Appreciative; *** = Transmitted / Thoughtful; ** = Vague / Unsatisfied; * = Uncommunicated / Mystified.