Review: The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Cirencester’s Barn Theatre

Sarah Louise Hughes in The Barn Theatre's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Sarah Louise Hughes in The Barn Theatre's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice - Credit: Archant

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, at Cirencester’s Barn Theatre, is well worth shouting about, says Katie Jarvis

Gillian McCafferty and Larissa Hunter in The Barn Theatre's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Gillian McCafferty and Larissa Hunter in The Barn Theatre's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice - Credit: Archant

You know Jim Cartwright? That really famous playwright you’ve never heard of. You’ve never heard of him because he wrote the really famous play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice...

Aha! Now you have heard of that, haven’t you!

(Along with plays such as I Licked A Slag’s Deodorant (1996). How great a title is that? Though is she really a slag, if she wears deodorant?) (Seems unfair.)

I’ll level with you here. I hadn’t heard of him either. Though Little Voice, as performed by Jane Horrocks, has long been on the periphery of my consciousness, despite the fact that I’d never seen it before last night. It’s been named one of the 50 best plays in the history of theatre (no, I don’t know by whom; I’m just repeating that from the Barn Theatre programme). Which surprises me – after all, Shakespeare wrote 37 dramas, so that only leaves 13 slots to play round with - but not too much.

Because it is a stunning play. It’s funny; it’s loud; it’s brash; it’s slapstick; it’s tragic; it’s true to life. And yet. And yet it also manages a twist on a metaphor we use without thinking.

It took him a while to find his voice.

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I felt as if I had no voice.

A voice. An identity. A means of making a mark on the world.

Sarah Louise Hughes in The Barn Theatre's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

Sarah Louise Hughes in The Barn Theatre's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice - Credit: Archant

So last night, we went to the Barn Theatre’s latest production. And, yes, it’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. I’ll level with you a bit more here – and I’m saying this because there are plenty of reviews already out there (I’ve checked); if I want mine to be different from others, I need to mention something they’ve missed.

That thing is that, at 3am yesterday morning, I’d wildly swung a pillow – in the midst of an action-packed dream – and knocked my large, full bedside glass of water all over a large box of unread books directly beside it. Reader, Sleep was a stranger after that.

So – even though the last production at the Barn was stunning (The Secret Garden) - I dragged myself with a reluctance and a suspicion that (as happened once before, during a really quiet production), I’d wake up in the middle with a huge snore.

Reader, that did not happen.

I was riveted.

The story? Ah, yes. It’s a multi-layered tragedy, this one. The story of Little Voice (that’s the only name she gets; defined – ironically, as it turns out – by her inability to make herself heard). LV is lost in a world of chaos. Her father is dead; her mother has a drink problem; and her mother has a boyfriend problem, too.

LV’s way of coping is through music; through the record collection her dad left to her. And by imitating the stars within those grooves – Cilla, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe among others – she finds a way of communicating.

Much to the annoyance of her mum, Mari, who – between drinks – finds her daughter weird.

“Are you agrophobical? Because, if you are, you can get out!”

When Mari brings back her latest conquest – small-time agent to the stars, Ray Say – he’s hooked. He can’t believe what he’s hearing. A perfect rendition of some of the greatest women singers of all time. LV, thinks Ray, is his meal ticket for a lifetime of lobster and champagne.

So what if LV’s biggest nightmare would be to appear on stage? So what if she’d much rather just stay at home and be loved once again; to find a safety and security that vanished with her dad?

This is too big an opportunity for Ray to miss.

Oh, Gillian McCafferty! A larger-than-life, rolling, staggering, hopeless drunk Mari. You stole the show for me. You were wonderful.

And that was quite a big show to steal. Because all credit to Sarah Louise Hughes: lost, lonely Little Voice. Who can believe this production was her first audition – fresh out of Italia Conti? But it was. Her drawn, pinched look was perfect. Even more perfect was her ability to steal the scene; to light up the stage; to draw all eyes; by being nothing. By doing nothing. By resisting any temptation (if any there was) to be more than she should. And her voice is superb. Not perfect in its differentiation of her different impersonations, it’s true. But superb nonetheless. If we don’t hear more from this rising star, I’ll eat my soggy books.

But the whole cast seemed unsurpassable to me: Hadley Brown (Billy); Larissa Hunter (a funny, moving Sadie); Stephen Omer (as Mr Boo, mainly); and Gary Richards as Ray. What a fabulous team.

All credit to behind the scenes, too, for excellent directing by Michael Strassen; as well as to the set, sound and music maestros. And to Iwan Lewis, the Barn’s artistic director, of course, for just being Iwan with the vision that he has.

It’s not just LV who’s finding her voice. The Barn Theatre is beginning to sing, too.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice by Jim Cartwright, directed by Michael Strassen, is at the Barn Theatre, Beeches Road, Cirencester GL7 1BN, until August 4;; 01285 648255

Visit the Barn Theatre website here.