little voice cast

Shobna Gulati as Mari, Fiona Mulvaney as Sadie, William Ilkley as Mr Boo and Ian Kelsey as Ray Say with, above, Christina Bianco as Little Voice.

 Pictures: Pamela Raith Photography

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Malvern Theatres


Jim Cartwright’s play depends upon one thing, the timid daughter, Laura Hoff, Little Voice. The key to the whole story.

The 1992 original was written by Cartwright when he was directing his first play, Road, and heard actress Jane Horrocks’ warm up routine mimicking the singing of the likes of Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey. Impressed, he wrote the play for her and her mimicry.

Thirty years on it still depends entirely upon an actress who can sing like Bassey, Garland, Monroe, Cilla Black, even Edith Piaf. Miming just wouldn’t cut it, it needs the real thing – and New York born Christina Bianco is just that, real as they come. Her singing is just brilliant, we get a whole world of divas from one hell of a voice in a wonderful, all-round performance.

A diminutive figure she almost squeaks her shy, tiny answers if she is forced to reply in the world of silence she has retreated into, a world where the only sound she wants to hear is from the host of female greats on the LPs her late father had left her.

This is her world, her escape from the crushing, even hostile reality her mother has created, mother being more a biological than a maternal term in this case.

Bianco in the bedroom

Little Voice retreats into her father's world of music in her bedroom

Shobna Gulati, from my home town of Oldham, is superb as the excruciating mother Mari, loud, crude, and as far from culture and sophistication as you can get without leaving the planet. The 1998 film was set in Scarborough and the play is less specific but firmly in the north with its butties and brews.

Mari is self-centred to a black hole level, selfish does not come near it, she is needy to the point of seeing everyone as her crutch to be immediately available whenever needed but out of sight and mind the rest of the time, and she is drunk more than sober, living in a house with dodgy wiring, little food, and what there is, is long out of date, much like herself.

Muck and common are her constant comparison. She is a poster girl for promiscuity, with a list of affairs while married which, it seems, grew even longer after she was widowed, a good time girl seeking . . . who knows what? A sad character underneath it all, probably someone who has never been really desirable, just available, and even that appeal is fading as time, and gravity, take their toll.

Still, she has found a man, Ray Say, played by Ian Kelsey. Ray is a small-time theatrical agent with a stable of third rate acts destined to fill the bottom of the bills at working men’s clubs and run down nightspots, such as Mr Boo’s run by Mr Boo, the name being a bit of a clue there.

Mr Boo, played by William Ilkley is not only the owner but the comedian compère at his club with jokes and patter that even a Christmas cracker would reject.

billy outside the window

Little Voice finds a soul mate in telephone engineer Billy, played by Akshay Gulati

Little Voice and Mr Boo would have stayed worlds apart but a fateful moment. LV  spends most of her time in silence in her bedroom listening to her late father’s LPs but when by chance Ray hears her sing, and not just sing, but sing just like like Shirley Bassey he realises that it is not so much his ship but a whole flotilla which has sailed in. He has struck gold and wants to show it off at Mr Boo's.

 Meanwhile Ray’s relationship with Mari is . . . should we say, convenient rather than committed, availability again. You suspect it is one based on nothing else being around at the moment. It all comes to a head when Ray sees a glittering future managing LV, and realises Mari will just be an embarrassment. He lays into her with some home truths, the most telling being that she is something for after a night at the boozer, nothing more.

The only problem is that the records, the singing, are private. They are the world nervous, shy LV inhabits, her hiding place, her connection with her dead father. Her stardom is going to be troubled and brief. Her singing is just for herself, no one else, its her comfort, her special place.

The only person who seems to understand is Billy, who we meet in the opening scene, as one of the engineers installing Mari’s new phone. He is quiet, lives with his granddad and has his own obsession. With LV it is her LPs, with Billy, it is Blackpool illuminations, or at least the love of lights his first visit as a child engendered, resulting in him creating a light show in granddad’s garden shed.

a star is nearly born

A star is so nearly born as Little Voice sings more for her father then Ray

Billy, played by Akshay Gulati, Shobna’s son, incidentally, is the nearest character to normal. He not only understands LV, but she understands him and he defends and encourages her, probably the last person to do so since her father.

Mari’s go to crutch is Sadie, overweight, but, like everything else in Sadie’s life, that’s OK. She is treated like part servant, part verbal punch bag. Played by Fiona Mulvaney she has little to say, ok. It is not an easy part and she manages it well as the always put upon and insulted friend and neighbour.

She gets her revenge though, if only by proxy, in a dramatic end after Ray’s even more cutting and brutal final rejection of the clinging on Mari as his LV dream falls apart.

That is followed by the meek and mild LV finding her voice at last, and years of hate, anger and fear spill out in a torrent in her own tirade, screaming at her mother, and as the stage clears Sadie appears from the shadows with a wry smile.

We end in a deserted Mr Boo’s where Billy is setting up the lights for a party for his grandad and LV starts to sing . . . ending as Laura, and singing in her own big voice.

The set, from Sara Perks, is a clever cutaway house filling the stage, and her costumes, from drab Sadie to tarty, designer slapper, Mari, add to the story. Nic Farman’s lighting cleverly covers everything from power failures to fires while Andrew Johnson’s sound design copes well with LV and her mimicry, records on the old Dansette, night club band and Mari’s screams.

Directed by Bronagh Lagan, Little Voice will be singing her heart out to 16-04-22.

Roger Clarke


Little Voice will be at Derby Theatre 3-7 May 2022 

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