Sunday, 11 October 2009

Little Voice, Vaudeville Theatre, 9 October 2009

Photograph: PR

There's a line Jeanette Winterson says when referring to Virginia Woolf's Orlando and the enthusiastic reaction it got from readers: "They (people) did not understand it but it charmed them."

The same sentiment could be used to describe "Little Voice" and its singular misguiding nature.

It is a charming play and it's easily misconstructed by the audience as a feel-good, uplifting play. Its structure suggests a simpler play than it really is. Of course it helps that this is a West End revival and the girl playing LV comes from the world of X-factor.

But (like the equally misjudged "Speaking in Tongues" at the Duke of York's right now) this is not a West End play and though it has enough going for it to woo a West End audience I dare say few people sitting around me at one of the preview nights stopped and thought just how extraordinary a play this "Little Voice" is.

This is not your usual West End musical it is a piece of poetry. Jim Cartwright is a poet. His language is extraordinarily experimental but it comes wrapped up in what Marc Warren calls a "northern showbiz fairytale". There are songs and good feelings and a budding, cute romance amidst the tragedy and wasted chances of these characters' lives. The play paints quite a dark picture of these dead-end people, of brash, loud, selfish Mari (Lesley Sharp) and her shy, anti-social daughter (Diana Vickers), and the chancer, has-been disaster that is the charming Ray (Marc Warren).

It's a redeeming and familiar enough story: LV, shy and self-confined to her room and her late fatheer's records gets out in the world through her extraordinary gift, a voice that can mimick those of the great singers: Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Shirley Bassey. Exploited by her dissatisfied and uncaring mother and a manipulative manager LV ultimately escapes the clutches of her opressive family life and finds love and freedom.

It is at times Disney-like fable and at times grim, tough Jimmy McGovern-ish Northern social drama.

It's curious to see how this revival sells one point but then the actual production doesn't turn its back on the other. It shouldn't blend well but it does. I suspect there's a lot of irony in Cartwright's assumed happy ending but there's a lot of heart, too. It's a complicated ending, too. It offers hope but few answers.

Although I think Lez Brotherston's girating set was a bit distracting at times I appreciated that Mari's house was every bit as ordinary and bleak as her life, and that they didn't prettied-up or clean the set for a more conventional audience than the one Jim Cartwright usually writes to (not for, I don't think he writes for anyone but himself). The production - despite the glittery posters and heavy pr campaign - doesn't shy from the darker themes of the story and, for example, the heartstopping last fight between Mari and LV is a perfect example, wonderfully pathetic and raw.

And the asset of this production is its cast, so that the GORGEOUS prose of Cartwright's get to shine as it deserves:
Mari: "You've always been a little voice and you've never liked much, to speak and such, but this thing you've developed could make us Ray reckons. Don't know where the hell it's come from, such a quiet lonely thing you've always been. I could almost fit you in my two hands as a babe. I don't know if it's the drink but I keep seeing you tonight as our little LV there, little pale chil' in me arms, or in the old pram there, that lemon coloured crocheted blanket around you, tiny good-as-gold face in the wool. I'm sorry for the way I am love at times, it seems to be the way I am. It seems to be something..."
Of course most people turned up at the theatre wondering if X-factor contestant Diana Vickers was up to the challenge. Well, yes and no. I have never seen X-factor so I had no previous reference, and I wasn't particularly concerned where she was coming from, as long as she was able to do a decent job. She is not a very good actress but she is not a very bad one, either. She fits the part of LV in a way that makes her believable. At least I believed her. She is sympathetic and the scenes with LV's love interest (played by the playwright's son, James Cartwright) carry the perfect balance of cuteness and embarrasment. But Vickers is not a great singer so when the times comes for LV to shine the moment is just a little underwhelming. But all in all she doesn't hurt the production irrevocably.

It was interesting to see two of my favourite actors acting together for the first time; although both Marc Warren and Lesley Sharp were pretty much in their comfort zones with this one. That doesn't diminish their merit, of course, but I always enjoy my favourites when they are doing something new (like Warren did with "The Pillowman"). Sharp is a veteran Cartwright-ist, having been in the first production of his seminal (& people use this adjective far too often but here I mean it) play, "Road" and her skills for both lyrical and down-to-earth moments makes her the perfect Mari, as if the role had been written for her. And Warren is used to play charmers so he is at home with Ray, but he also shows his capacity for pathos in the wonderful scene where Ray breaks down at the club.

It is always wonderful to see such gifted actors doing their thing.

"Little Voice" is a rare thing; it's a show that I utterly love but also I show I would recommend to everyone for very different reasons to those why I love it. Whether you are looking for a bit of West End escapism or for a searching, lyrical piece of art, you will leave the theatre satisfied. Cheered up even.

Read Marc Warren's diary of the production.

The Stage.
The Guardian.
The Telegraph.

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