Little Voice is different. Living with her widowed mother the only place she finds any solace is in her records, left to her by her father. She locks herself away in her room and is a quiet, reclusive girl, preferring to be kept apart from her mother and her various and numerous gentlemen callers. The most recent of these is Ray Say, an impresario for the local entertainment circuit who overhears Little Voice singing in her room and smells success, but first he must find a way to convince this shy creature to take to the stage. The story of her often traumatic journey is full of moments that could make your heart stand up and openly weep or dance on cue.
The cast has promise in it; Helen Sheals plays Little Voice’s mother in this production but was cast as LV herself in the premiere at the Bristol Old Vic in 1993. Lauren Hood, who plays Little Voice herself, graduated from Mountview in 2008 and has been nominated for numerous awards since; a real up-and-coming star of the theatrical firmament. Unfortunately, she is the only bright light in the show, which is unfortunate not least because one of the characters is a lighting technician.
Helen Sheals fell victim to a number of line slips that were the beginning of the slope that continued to decline for two hours. There was little variation in her tone, no tenderness in her, no depth of character or nuance to give her more humanity than the caricatured role of ‘drunk and selfish mother’. I would have expected a more nuanced performance from someone who knows the script as intimately as she should but she cannot take sole responsibility for it.
Neil McCaul as Ray was good; he had a latent bravado that brought some energy to the stage bringing with it a solidity and a firmness both in his character and his performance. When he was on stage there was a clear direction to the action and some of his conversations with LV were deeply moving, he was even funny from time to time.
Despite this, Lauren Hood was undoubtedly the centerpiece holding the show together. She had a much deeper level of character than the others and the musical showcase that the play afforded her had my hair standing on end, each competing for the best possible view. Whether she was quietly clinging to her necklace or boldly singing on stage she was both believable and watchable, giving a commendable performance. Watch this space.
Lisa Riley isn’t given much of a chance to shine as Sadie, which was a bit of a missed opportunity, apart from the loosely choreographed dance scene that might have sent Michael Jackson to the grave if he hadn’t already paid it a visit or two. I joke; it wasn’t that bad but as with much of the show I couldn’t discern whether or not it was meant to be bad. A few of the jokes are obviously intended to be bad jokes but not all of them, I hope, and a few of the moments dotted around seem to be similarly perplexing. I point the finger of misdirection at, guess who, the director. Suspiciously sharing a surname with the painfully underwhelming Jack Chissick she has failed to bring the performance out of the woodwork that may be waiting there. It felt like a dress rehearsal with little confidence in the action, movement or lines and very little depth and nuance to the characters.
The set deserves a mention, it was very good; the upstairs downstairs separation of LV’s bedroom and the living room worked very well and the ease with which the set transformed from the house to the club was simple and effective. Technically, however, there were a fair few rough edges. Hood had a microphone on her cheek but Jack Chissick was given an unnecessary freestanding mic that he shouted into, battering the audience with consonants, which was especially annoying after the constant feedback from the speakers. There was also a poorly disguised smoke machine and a Rubik’s Cube that was frustratingly out of place. But I’m nitpicking now.
The script was puzzling at best, the title implying that the piece is a tragedy but the finale being ambiguous enough to leave us without a satisfying ending and a lot of imagery that could have been used to much greater effect and poignancy (particularly surrounding the regrettably bitty part of Billy, the man with a passion for lights). The title also implies that the story is about LV, but one would be mistaken to believe that to be the case as it focuses more on her overbearing mother and completely skips the stories you’d want to see, for example how Ray convinced and trained LV to give the performance she did. There is definitely a story in there but I’m not entirely sure how it was nominated for so many awards when it opened; it feels more like a draft than a finished play.
Having said all this rather negative stuff, it’s not actually a bad night. Hood’s medley in the second act saves the show from the doldrums and gives it all a bit of sparkle, which is sorely needed. Although it’s not worth traipsing round the country for, it’s not the worst thing in the world to be subjected to for a couple of hours. Thank Lauren Hood for that.
Written by Jim Cartwright; Directed by Hannah Chissick; At the Oxford Playhouse; Starring Lauren Hood, Helen Sheals, Lisa Riley, Philip Hill-Pearson, Neil McCaul, Jack Chissick; Runs from 29 July 11 - 20 August 11 (tour).
John Ord (23/08/2011)