Barn Theatre, Cirencester – until 4 August 2018
A first and long overdue trip to Cirencester’s Barn Theatre where one finds an imaginative conversion of historic buildings into a modern theatre, whose facilities are bright and attractive. If there is one complaint it is that the seating rake is only applied to alternate rows – and thus there exists a distinct possibility of being seated behind a visually obstructive person in front. No doubt though that this is a problem that can relatively easily be remedied. What is clear is that a beautiful venue has been created in a beautiful town and it deserves artistic success.
That artistic success, however, is hard to spot in the Barn’s current production of The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice, where Jim Cartwright’s play, which should be a scorching contrast of the highs and lows of the human condition falls short of the target.
To summarise, Little Voice (LV) is the teenage daughter of Mari Hoff – a neglectful mother. Known as LV because she barely speaks, the young girl has withdrawn into a world in which she has learned to sing, perfectly, the recordings of Cilla Black, Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe, Edith Piaf etc, having played them incessantly from her late father’s vinyl collection.
When Mari comes home drunk one night accompanied by sleazy music manager Ray Say, in pursuit of a sordid sofa fumble, Say happens to overhear LV singing. Recognising her commercial potential as a singer, a painful tale of differing hopes, aspirations and brutal disappointment unfolds.
The strengths of this show will always flow from the young woman playing LV and in Sarah Louise Hughes, director Michael Strassen has unearthed a gem. Fresh out of Italia Conti and a NYMT alumna to boot, Hughes offers a depth and wisdom to her portrayal of the damaged daughter that belies her age. Dramatically convincing and vocally perfect, she captures LV’s complexities while offering a sensational take on some of the last century’s greatest songs.
Unfortunately the excellence stops there. Gillian McCafferty plays Mari who, while managing to display much maternal misery, mangles most of Cartwright’s carefully crafted text. There is wry, bittersweet humour written into her role which should leave the audience, certainly for much of the first half, chuckling uncomfortably. All too often however, Mari’s wit is swept away in a garble of rushed prose. McCafferty makes a decent fist of a couple of monologues, and in both acts too, but they are too little too late.
Gary Richards is Ray Say – and again Strassen has let what could be a critically acidic and nasty character be fleshed out in little more than cardboard. Richards lacks passion and credibility and while his stumbling over lines could be forgiven, when set against an overall lacklustre delivery he sails perilously close to bringing the audience’s delicately suspended disbelief crashing to the ground.. The second act demands that he sings Roy Orbison’s classic It’s Over. Done well, this should be a moment of theatrical electricity – the swan song of a rat, gasping for air at the bottom of life’s barrel. In this show, the song is rendered dull and devoid of passion.
There are other moments of redemption – Say’s exchanges with local club owner Mr Boo (Stephen Omer) are sleazily credible as the men plot their exploitation of LV’s innocent potential. Hadley Brown puts in a turn of some credible kindness as the telephone engineer who forges a real emotional connection with LV. Likewise Larissa Hunter’s Sadie, Mari’s much put upon best friend is another modest role, performed with care and craft.
But aside from Hughes’ magical touch, this show is an opportunity squandered. Strassen, usually a master in portraying the grit of hard Northern lives, is better than this.