Tom Latter’s production plays into the antiquated nature of Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice rather than acknowledging its shortcomings, leaving us with a more obselete retelling than I believe is necessary or appropriate.
There’s a datedness to the narrative of Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice – that, whilst I appreciate may be reflective of the socio-economic reality of early 90’s Scarborough, still doesn’t sit comfortably in 2018 without an interpretation that at least attempts to retune its characters’ motivations.
The crux of this savage and much-revived tragi-comedy is that all three female characters exist in destructive purgatories – whilst all the men are perfectly ‘fine’: sane, autonomous, on career trajectories and possessors of aspirations and prospects.
Other than drinking (Mari), eating (Sadie) and refusing to eat (LV) away their respective sadnesses, the women are surely presented as idle and passive as characters come. All interactions between sexes – even tender ones between LV and her telephone engineer – lead you to believe that (both in their heads, and the mens’) the only ‘saving grace’ or ‘exit route’ is the arrival of a suitor. Unfortunately, Tom Latter’s new production at the Park Theatre appears to play into that antiquated reality rather than acknowledging its shortcoming – which leaves us with a far more obselete retelling of Little Voice than I believe is necessary or appropriate.
Mari Hoff (an assured Sally George) and LV’s (her real-life daughter Rafaella Hutchinson) house is intended, of course, to feel empty and ‘incomplete’ in the opening scene. The unexpected death of their husband/dad has understandably paralysed both characters, and a flatness to both is to be expected. I’d argue the show ought not to feel as ‘flat’ as Mari & LV do, though. From Mari’s first ear-piercing scream, the pace is grindingly slow – and I soon learnt this would continue (the production coming close to a fidget-inducing 3 hours).
More energy is required to a) do justice to Cartwright’s jokes, which, incongruously, come thick and fast – and b) successfully establish how ‘noisy’ LV’s world is. The latter is crucial because, as the director recognises in his programme notes, the story hinges around our eponymous protagonist discovering her own voice against this cacophony. The sedate pacing really doesn’t give us any sense of this noise, though. Other than the humming of the electrics, there are vast periods when this world actually feels far more like void – and whilst most jokes land, I can’t help but feel the atmosphere would be far more uproarious by halfing the length of the unnecessary ‘dramatic pauses’.
Staging is, on the whole, equally stilted: after establishing the emotional distance and incompatibility between mother & daughter, I longed for the moment when scenes would become – and stay – more dynamic. We’re treated to one dance section – occasionally funny, at least whenever the punchline wasn’t merely the fact that one of the dancers is ‘fat’ – but the pace stoically returns the moment the music is turned off. Even LV’s post-interval ‘performances’, whilst vocally competent, visually lack energy or momentum. I yearned for our protagonist to ‘come into her own’ in her physicality, in addition to her vocals, but her character arch is stalled by the fact she (physically) looks as nervous in the show’s finale as in its opening.
Too much of the time, character motivations don’t make enough sense: it’s difficult to understand what, at all, Sadie sees in Mari as a loyal companion (for one, she looks far closer in age to LV – and other than laughing at another woman in pain, isn’t given enough opportunities to portray her character’s resilience). Equally, Hutchinson seems to have been directed to be so vocally inhibited when Ray (Kevin McMonagle) first hears her sing – that it’s tricky to understand his ‘bewitchment’. I think ‘more’ would have been ‘more’, in that case.
The cast do the best they can despite these directorial weak spots and deserve credit for that: Linford Johnson’s Billy stands out for giving probably the most multi-layered performance of the night. I was captivated by George’s Mari, though there perhaps weren’t enough shades of grey to her performance. I certainly bought her ‘reckless’ side but was never made to feel deeply sorry for her (in her desperate struggle for one last chance of emotional happiness).
Hutchinson – in the titular role – has an appealing innocence and sweet voice, but (understandably – no one can deny the production somewhat hinges on them and the Horrocks legacy cannot be easy to live up to) seemed nervous during the impression sections. I couldn’t help but share in that fairly palpable anxiety, and found the act 2 ‘performances’ to be a little uncomfortable. I wanted Hutchinson to look like she was genuinely enjoying them a little more – and expect I would’ve followed. The Park’s ‘real-life mother/daughter’ casting USP is sort of immaterial though: at no point in the play is any chemistry supposed to exist between the two characters anyway so I’m not sure what the benefit to the audience is of them actually being blood-related.
From my perspective, it would’ve been far more artistically interesting for Latter and the Park to explore how the female characters could be ‘modernised’ to seem less quiescent. I’m not suggesting script re-writes, by any means, but subtle character decisions where audiences get the distinct impression LV is her own saving grace (not Ray or Billy), not another Rapunzel imprisoned in a tower. Where Mari is not just a detestable alcoholic, but we see her at least wanting to be a good mother – or wanting the best for her child. Where Sadie gets the upper hand not by laughing at another woman’s demise, but by – perhaps – being the mother-figure LV lacks. Anything, I think, that elevates what fasts becomes a heavy-handed production of Cartwright’s masterwork to something more dramatically interesting.