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The Rise & Fall of Little Voice at Theatre Royal Brighton

Probably Jim Cartwright’s best play, and first seen thirty years ago, The Rise and Fall of Little Voice still comes across very powerfully, especially in this new production.

Christina Bianco The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (Pamela Raith Photography).
Christina Bianco The Rise and Fall of Little Voice (Pamela Raith Photography).

Mari and daughter ‘Little Voice (LV)’ live in a seedy terrace house (a superb two-level set of a cutaway dwelling by Sara Perks really enhancing the feeling of self-induced poverty) in an unspecified northern town. Mari is an alcoholic, always shouting and ranting to anyone who might be within earshot, with only one friend, Sadi, and forever being willing to sleep with any and every man, even though she has long gone to seed, and looks it! LV copes by rarely speaking, hiding herself in her bedroom and playing her father’s LPs, which she sings along to, having the knack of copying the voices of Judy Garland, Julie Andrews et al. Everything changes when Mari’s new boyfriend, Ray, who has ‘show business’ connections, hears LV sing and realises that there could be money in it if he can exploit her…

Shobna Gulati (Mari) is suitably larger than life, forever whingeing and complaining at the unfairness of everything at the top of her voice. It is very difficult to have any sympathy with her, except in some strange way we do, as she has a vulnerability, especially as portrayed here, that is touching and watchable. Mari is on stage most of the time and has to drive the play by sheer physical and vocal energy. Gulati succeeds triumphantly in this, her most moving scene being the soliloquy she has in Act Two which in this production really draws us in to the life from which she seems unable to escape.

Boyfriend Ray is not given anything like as much to do but, in the hands of local (Shoreham) actor Ian Kelsey, is totally successful in creating a role in which the motivation for all his actions is clear, whether it is sleeping with Mari or persuading LV to sing at the local working mens’ club.

Cartwright is clever in giving LV little to do in the first act except move around the house and listen to her father’s records in her bedroom, but at the start of the second half we are treated to her first successful ‘set’ at the local club, which, in the hands of Christina Bianco, is utterly superb, impersonating the voices and styles of many female singers of the twentieth century, which she has agreed to do once only in memory of her father. Bianco has a stage charisma in the role of LV which is always fascinating, even, in fact especially, when she is the downtrodden daughter, afraid to say or do anything for fear of being the butt of Mari’s wrath again.

LV’s eventual boyfriend, Billy, is convincingly acted by Akshay Gulati, as is Sadi, by Fiona Mulvaney and Mr Boo, the compere, by William Ilkley.

Bronach Lagan obviously knows how this play should ‘go’, allowing the pace and volume to slacken slightly whenever Mari is not onstage, giving the audience breathing space to prepare for the next onslaught as well as giving the whole production terrific energy. The lighting designer, Nic Farman, also needs more than a mention, the second half of Act Two being very inventive, yet totally believable and greatly aiding the denouement. If I say any more I shall be accused of giving away the plot for those who don’t know it! Vitally important sound and music design are by Andrew Johnson and Eamonn O’Dwyer.

This touring production, hailing from MAST, Southampton, is superb in every respect and, even if you know the play or movie, I do urge you to search it out on its extensive tour: the nearest venue to London is ATG’s Richmond Theatre w/c 27 June.

A moving and ultimately uplifting evening, imaginatively staged, beautifully acted and strongly directed.

5 Star Rating

Review by John Groves

The Olivier Award-Winning comedy-drama from Jim Cartwright has earned international acclaim across the globe, including a Golden Globe winning smash-hit film starring Jane Horrocks and Michael Caine.

Meet Little Voice and Mari Hoff. A mother and daughter central to the heart of this Northern fairy-tale, but as far apart in character as can be. Little Voice leads a quiet and unassuming life, seeking companionship and joy from music’s most iconic singers, whilst Mari prefers the sound of her own voice, indulging in a life of booze, cheap thrills and seedy men. Left to her own devices, LV starts to embody the famous divas she plays on repeat, swapping the grey backstreets of Northern England for the bright lights of Hollywood and Broadway, all from the safety of her own bedroom.

When Mari starts dating small-time club owner Ray Say, LV’s astonishing impersonations of Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe and Judy Garland to name a few, are thrust into the spotlight. Transformed and sensational, LV might just be Ray’s one and only chance to hit the big time, but what will the consequences be for mother and daughter?

Starring TV favorite Shobna Gulati (Coronation Street, Dinnerladies, Loose Women), British soap royalty Ian Kelsey (Emmerdale, Casualty) and ‘the girl of a thousand voices’ and two-time Drama Desk Award Nominee Christina Bianco, as Little Voice.

Cartwright’s timeless and iconic tale explores the highs and the lows of small-town dreams, family rivalry and finding your voice in a noisy world.

Theatre Royal Brighton
Mon 25 Apr – Sat 30 Apr 2022
New Road, Brighton, BN1 1SD

Book Tickets for Theatre Royal Brighton


  • John Groves

    John Groves studied singing with Robert Easton and conducting with Clive Timms. He was lucky enough to act in the British premiere of a Strindberg play at the Edinburgh Festival Fringe more years ago than he cares to remember, as well as singing at the Royal Opera House - once! He taught drama and music at several schools, as well as examining the practical aspects of GCSE and A level drama for many years. For twenty five years he has conducted a brass band as well as living on one of the highest points of East Sussex surrounded by woodland, deer, foxes and badgers, with kites and buzzards flying overhead.

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