Venue: New Theatre (Newtown NSW), May 15 – 24, 2014
Playwright: Jim Cartwright
Director: Christine Firkin
Actors: Debbie Neilson, Wendy Morton, Michelle Bellamy, Nick Bolton, Luke Reeves, Kevin Weir, Mark Reiss
Image by Geoff Sirmai
Northern England is a long distance away, with its own significant cultural and language affectations. The desire to stage a production from that region for a Sydney audience, demonstrates the universal appeal of Jim Cartwight’s script. The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice is a comedy that examines the darker side of family dynamics in a deceptively upbeat manner. It tackles dysfunction and neglect in the guise of a pseudo-musical, with ample measures of broad campy humour and a lot of singing.
Lane Cove Theatre’s production places emphasis on the play’s light-hearted elements. We see the drunken fumblings of a desperate middle-aged woman Mari Hoff, her daughter LV’s burgeoning and very innocent romance, and their neighbour’s kooky jesting. There is some effort at depicting Hoff’s love interest with some sinisterness, but by and large, the show lacks a gravity that would give meaning to its story and characters. Little Voice relies heavily on empathy and personal identification for its dramatics to be effective, but the narrative does not always connect sufficiently with its audience. An important aspect of the play is the loss of the family’s paternal figure that causes disharmony and grief, and it is the memory both women bear of the man that provides impetus for the plot, but his presence is unsatisfactorily sparse in this staging. He leaves a hole in their lives, but we are blissfully oblivious to it.
Wendy Morton is an energetic actor who provides Mari Hoff with an emotional neediness and instability that is uncomfortably believable. There is a sense of self-abandonment in Morton’s work that is entertaining and fitting, but the character she creates has too much warmth, and comes across overly endearing. The story needs a mother with a cruel and villainous edge to justify her appointed conclusion, and to help explain her daughter’s strangeness, but Morton lacks those malevolent qualities in her otherwise delightful portrayal. LV is played by Debbie Neilson who shines in musical sections where her talents as an impressionist take centre stage. She performs as Judy Garland, Lulu, Edith Piaf, Marlene Dietrich and Shirley Bassey, and is particularly memorable with her mimicry of Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Temple. It is clear that Neilson’s vocal ability contributes greatly to her part in the show, but the actor is not ideally cast. Neilson is a vibrant and gregarious performer who seems to be at odds with the timidness and melancholy that is fundamental to her character. In the role of her love interest Billy, is Luke Reeves who delivers the most consistent and convincing characterisation in the show. The script does not demand very much of the actor, but Reeves is clear of his contribution to the plot, and addresses each scene with charm and precision.
Little Voice is effervescent and colourful, but it is the exploration of the writing’s psychological and emotional depths that would give it a sense of authenticity. Death and mourning are themes that touch all our lives, and truthful theatrical renderings always resonate. Coming of age tales are appealing because they speak of hope, but they need the darkness before the light in order to hit home.