Union Theatre, London – closed 26 June 2016
The final production at the Union Theatre’s old residence has been an absolute cracker. Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is a brilliantly observed study of life in a northern town through the multi-faceted prism of Mari Hoff and her gifted daughter Little Voice (abbreviated to LV).
Hoff’s husband (and LV’s father) is long dead and as this monstrously merry widow cavorts desperately in search of love and affection, so does LV retreat into a world in which her only solace comes from her dad’s record collection of the 20th century’s greatest singers. But more than just hiding behind the songs, LV has learned to mimic them perfectly, bringing life to the background drab routine like a shaft of sunlight. Cartwright’s text may be merciless as it exposes both Mari’s and LV’s excoriating loneliness – but it is the detail imbued in his supporting characters that make the play so compelling.
The production has closed now, so this review must stand solely as a record to one of the most moving productions that the Union has mounted in recent years, with Alastair Knights coaxing perfectly nuanced performances from his entire cast. Charlotte Gorton was Mari. Mutton masquerading as lamb maybe, hers was a cleverly constructed and complex character. Tottering across the stage on heels and clad in either leopard print leggings or tattily torn stockings, Mari is craving to be wanted by a man, yet at the same time fiercely protective and loving of her virtually catatonic daughter. After talent spotter Ray Say drives her home for a drunken fumble on the sofa, Gorton’s gradual realisation that Say is more interested in Mari’s vocally gifted daughter rather than her, is a masterclass in performance. Credit too to Christiansen’s ruthlessly cynical Say. The man is an utter bastard as Christiansen delivered a withering yet sadly recognizable performance.
Carly Thoms’ Little Voice was wondrous. She captured LV’s damaged fragility with a painful piquancy and when the script required her to sing, often without a musical accompaniment. Thoms duly delivered spine-tingling excellence.
Likewise the supporting vignettes were all a treat. Mandy Dassa’s corpulent Sadie, Mari’s obedient yet loving friend is a fine example of a minor character perfectly complementing and completing a scene’s ambience. At the town’s local night club James Peake played compere and impresario Mr Boo again, perfectly. As the fourth wall is brought down to make the theatre audience evolve into the club’s crowd, the applause for LV is as sincere as it is pastiche. Peake’s Brylcreemed delivery of corny gags and patter was just another of the night’s gems, while Glenn Adamson’s softly spoken Billy, a quietly withdrawn telephone engineer offered a perfectly weighted performance as a mutual affection between him and LV emerged.
Yet again, Jack Weir’s lighting was sensational, using the Union’s exposed ironworks to mount marquee nightclub lights and ingeniously creating different locations with his carefully considered plots.
There’s a moment in act two when Ray Say, drunk and in despair, takes to the microphone on Boo’s nightclub stage after realizing that LV is unable to perform. Christiansen was sensational as the destroyed exploiter, and as he powerfully slurred his way through a Roy Orbison classic, in one of the final performances ever to be mounted at the Union’s old premises, there was an added poignancy to the song. A gleaming new building may await the Union just across the road, but for this quaint, damp building, all brickwork and iron girders, itself an archaic tribute to both London’s history and the brilliant ingenuity of fringe theatre, It’s Over.