Review: The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (Theatre Royal, Brighton, until Saturday, March 9)

A play about the tormented home life of a reluctant – but amazing – performer, thrust very much against her will into the spotlight could be the stuff of any contemporary TV talent show you could care to think of.

Strangely Jim Cartwright’s successful and oft-produced The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, written in 1992 with what would appear to be an 80s working men’s club/Northern town setting, seems slightly dated, but is clearly entertaining audiences nationally in a new production (directed by Cartwright himself) during a massive tour of the country.

Those more familiar with the film version might be surprised to find the play is less dark and sinister than on the big screen, but the story remains the same: shy Little Voice clinging on to memories of her late father by playing the records he loved and mimicking the divas featured on them, while her larger than life mother spirals out of control.

Beverley Callard plays monstrous drunken mother Mari with little subtlety and is so obnoxious it is impossible to like her, let alone have any sympathy for her – but perhaps in this looking glass version of the musical Gypsy that is the intention, as the mum has no ambitions for her daughter until the clink of cash is heard.

It is her dismissive talent scout boyfriend Ray (played with a Boycie swagger by Simon Thorp) who overhears “LV” singing the likes of Judy Garland and Edith Piaf standards, and comes up with a plan to launch her into the big time via the local club at an evening hosted by cheesy compere Mr Boo (Duggie Brown).

Ray Quinn provides the romantic interest as the telephone engineer whose shyness resonates with LV as he attempts to rescue her from her mental and physical captivity, but on stage the character is not developed well and Quinn has little more to do than stand at the side of the stage shouting up at the heroine’s bedroom window.

If the standing ovations and loud applause at the end of the show are reserved for Jess Robinson as Little Voice, then this is indeed justified. The impressionist, who is also a part of the brilliant singing group The Segue Sisters, is on very good form indeed showing the vulnerability of the little girl lost, a powerful divatastic voice, and some good impressions of singers ranging from Shirley Bassey and Cilla Black to Marilyn Monroe and Barbra Streisand.

This production does not crackle with much energy and some of the pre-show and interval entertainment is actually more enjoyable. Frankly there were times when I needed to pinch myself as a reminder this was a professional company rather than a village hall amateur troupe, though it’s a good reminder that you don’t have to be a big name to be the real star.

David Guest