Christina Bianco in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice – review

Shobna Gulati, Ian Kelsey and Christina Bianco delight in Jim Cartwright’s classic comedy

★★★★

Production photo of Christina Bianco, Ian Kelsey and Shoibna Gulati in the 2022 touring production of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice
Christina Bianco, Ian Kelsey and Shoibna Gulati in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

Touring productions are the Cinderella of British theatre. Given the choice, actors will often prefer to work in one place, preferably London. So, when I saw that two former soap actors and a YouTube sensation were heading the cast of the new touring production of The Rise And Fall of Little Voice, I feared the worst. How wrong I was.

Jim Cartwright’s play about an introverted young woman mourning her father and badly treated by her mother, who finds escape in the music of classic female singers, has been revived many times. The challenge for all the actors in this show is that there has also been a film version that is imprinted on most of our brains. Brenda Blethyn as the horrendous mother Mari Hoff, Michael Caine as the smooth talking showbiz manager Ray Say, and of course Jane Horrocks as LV, or Little Voice. So the cast have to work very hard to make you forget those definitive performances. None more so than the person playing LV. In some ways, the challenge is not to mess it up.

With the part of Mari, Jim Cartwright created one of theatre’s great monsters: a selfish woman with no redeeming features whose only concern is her own love life, and who abuses not only her daughter but the English language. Shobna Gulati grabs the part with both hands and extracts every ounce of comedy out of it. She relishes the outrageous puns (“I did it my Ray’) and dishes out malapropisms with a perfect deadpan delivery. When criticising LV for her lack of politeness, ‘She can’t even be swivel’ or, referring to her age, ‘at my time of strife’. Visually, her bosoms are barely contained by her garish outfits, and she totters precariously in tight skirts and high heels. In fact, the dresses and makeup are so over the top that many drag acts would find it hard to compete. Her physical comedy is a joy, especially when she’s playing being drunk. She literally throws herself into the role and gives it, as her character would say, one hundred pesetas. I loved the moment when she pulled Ray onto the sofa, her legs flailing in the air.

Ian Kelsey gives us just the right mix of sleaziness and desperation. I last saw him thirty years ago as Danny Zuko in Grease. He’s still offering roguish allure but, here, as Ray attempts to exploit LV, he adds an underlying nastiness. Mr Kelsey conveys perfectly the ageing charm and sense of failure that make his character comically pathetic.

Christina Bianco creates a good impression

Production photo of Christina Bianco in the 2022 touring production of Jim Cartwright's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice
Christina Bianco in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. Photo: Pamela Raith Photography

I’d never heard of Christina Bianco until now, which is clearly my bad since she has 123,000 followers on YouTube and her impressions of singers have been viewed over 25 million times. So, how well can she sing?  We get glimpses as the first act progresses, then there are two nightclub performances, which LV is pushed into making. Not only does she sing beautifully but her impressions of Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Shirley Bassey and many more are spot on. After all these years, very few in the audience will be taken by surprise when, after all the silence and whispers, LV reveals her diva singing voice, but the tingle down the back of the neck that Ms Bianco creates is still powerful enough to merit a round of appreciative applause.

If you want a taste of how good Christina Bianco is at impressions of singers, watch her on YouTube singing Let It Go (there’s a choice but I’d recommend the video from a year ago). As for her Lancashire accent, admittedly she’s an impressionist, but it’s spot on. You would never know she’s from New York.

She is uncannily like Jane Horrocks but it would be unfair to dismiss her performance as an impression because there is little leeway for playing the role differently. Jim Cartwright wrote the part of LV for Jane Horrocks and she played it both in its National Theatre premiere and on film, so that is how the part is meant to be played. The important point is, Christina Bianco is entirely convincing as someone traumatised by grief and parental abuse, who continues to be bullied until she finds her own voice.

Akshay Gulati is believable as the shy would-be boyfriend of LV and William Ilkley makes a cringe-worthy Mr Boo, the club owner and MC.

Fiona Mulvaney is excellent as Mari’s friend Sadie. I can’t help feeling the part of a stooge who says very little other than ‘Okay’ is reminiscent of the kind of one-dimensional character you’d find in an old fashioned sitcom. That’s just one of the ways this play is now showing its age. Also, this mainly pacey play seemed to me to be drawn out at the end.

The set designed by Sara Perks takes the form of a two up-two down house with the front and part of the roof torn off, as if giving us an unauthorised glimpse into what would normally go on behind closed doors. It’s crowded with furniture and other cheap objects, adding to a strong sense of the tastelessness of Mari’s tawdriness, and the claustrophobia of working class life.

Bronagh Lagan is the director responsible for a production that gives laughter, pathos and joy in equal measures.

[Edited 2 April 2022: extended description of Shobna Gulati’s performance.]

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The Rise and Fall of Little Voice 2022 tour dates:
28 March – 2 April The Capitol, Horsham
4 – 9 April Exeter Northcott
11 – 16 April Malvern Theatres
18 – 23 April Theatre Clwyd
25 – 30 April Theatre Royal Brighton
3 May – 7 May Derby Theatre
9 – 14 May Salisbury Playhouse
16 – 21 May Liverpool Playhouse
23 – 28 May Wakefield Theatre Royal
30 May – 4 June Crewe Lyceum Theatre
6 – 11 June The Lowry, Salford
13 – 18 June Blackpool Grand
21 – 25 June Mercury Theatre, Colchester
27 June – 2 July Richmond Theatre
4 – 9 July York Theatre Royal
11 – 16 July Everyman Theatre Cheltenham