little voice trio

Christina Bianco as Little Voice, Shobna Gulati as Mari and Ian Kelsey as Ray Say. Pictures: Pamela Raith Photography

The Rise and fall of Little Voice

Derby Theatre


Playwright Jim Cartwright is one of our most important contemporary English dramatists. The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is one of his finest achievements. First performed in 1992 on stage, then made for film in 1998, this revival features a superb cast lead by Christina Bianco as the eponymous Little Voice.

The part could have been written for Bianco who has risen to fame as an outstanding singer whose forte is impersonating the singing styles of others. Her YouTube performances have been watched over 25 million times. LV requires the impersonation of Judy Garland, Edith Piaf, Shirley Bassey and Julie Andrews amongst others, it is perfect for her. She is perfect for the part.

The original production of the play, directed by Sam Mendes, and film, made a star of Jane Horrocks, Pete Postlethwaite and Alison Steadman, the subsequent film featured Michael Caine and Brenda Blethyn. Subsequent productions have always attracted top performing talent including recently Beverley Callard and Diana Vickers, and with good reason. Cartwright has a knack of writing memorable characters.

Although 30 years have passed since its debut, this modern fairy tale still engages and beguiles.Christina Bianco’s vocals inevitably command the audience’s attention but it is mother, Mari (Shobna Gulati), who is the narrative driving force in a powerhouse acting performance for which she is seldom off stage.

Swathed in pink satin she seduces boyfriend Ray (Ian Kelsey) then cajoles and prods LV on to success despite grinding poverty combining lacquer and liquor in equally copious amounts, invoking the spirit of Duke Senior’s Shakespeare’s line, Sweet are the uses of adversity.

christina as LV Derby

Christina Bianco in full flow as LV

Her opening scene collapsing in a drunken stupor after a night out was funny, poignant and sharply observed in equal measure.

The second act is stronger than the first, the latter in which LV does little, but the second half features LV delivering a live set which is magnificent, with sound and music design by Andrew Johnson and Eamonn O’Dwyer. Yet it is Gulati’s soliloquy on poverty and escape in an incendiary, if slightly confused, finale which captures the essence of the evening, even if Bianco is the sound of it.

An imaginative, two storey, sliced open doll’s house set, designed by Sara Perks, and wonderfully lit (and not lit, and then intermittently lit) by lighting director Nic Farman, is striking and works well, allowing us into the family home in an era when “X factor” and “Popstars” were not available as an alternative to hard work in the entertainment industry. Indeed, Kelsey’s impresario character Ray must surely have inspired Simon Cowell. Kelsey's vicious bullying of the "past it" Mari is a show stopping highlight of the night

Director Bronagh Lagan has a fearsomely diverse track record as a director and those skills are on display in an inspired, faithful revival, which teeters on becoming a musical before reverting to kitchen sink drama. She is particularly adept at pacing the show and showcasing the contrast between LV’s first act timidity, then second act performing bombast, and Gulati’s brashness and despair. Fiona Mulvaney (Sadie) as Mari's downtrodden best friend thanklessly has the role of Mari's foil, Askay Gulati (Billy) is a beacon of normality and decency as LV's boyfriend.

Another memorable production at Derby theatre, playing to7th May and touring nationwide until 16th July. 

By Gary Longden


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