The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice theatre review (Eternity Playhouse, Sydney)

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Here is a good play with a contradictorily bad title, in a starry production by Darlinghurst Theatre that approaches very good.

Little Voice, of course, is nothing of the sort. It’s the name her muzzling mum Mari has enforced upon her. In the privacy of her room it’s a very big voice indeed.

Possessed by history’s great female voices – Bassey, Monroe, Garland, etc – LV is an uncanny mimic, rehearsing with old records in her room to escape the willfully wasted woman below. LV could fill concert halls, with sound and fury and paying audience, if she really wanted to. She, defiantly, does not want to.

This isn’t Gypsy, with children whose eyes widen once pushed into the spotlight. This is more Free Willy, an animal caged in an unnatural habitat and forced to jump through hoops at increasing personal cost.

We never really see “LV” rise or fall in any great trajectory. There is sad, and sadder still, and finally, if you squint, the smallest shard of hope, in the spirit of this particularly British genre of squalid underclass drama.

That Jim Cartwright’s 1992 play – and his 1998 film adaptation (Little Voice) – is often lumped in the crowd-pleasing comedy bucket is another quirk of the genre. It inspires laughter, certainly. Howls of it. But it mostly inspires sympathy. This is tragedy – the underprivileged, in cycles of abuse and self-harm, who almost certainly will never escape.

The season-opening Darlinghurst production directed by Shaun Rennie (The View Upstairs and Only Heaven Knows at the Hayes Theatre) doesn’t shy away from the hardship. But it perhaps irons out some of its deeper wrinkles. And feels a little longer than it should.

It’s a tailor-made fit for Caroline O’Connor and an utterly compelling performance.

Rennie choreographs the bigger scenes really well. But they don’t all fit together easily. The awkwardness in some of the scene changes isn’t helped by the design. The set (Isabel Hudson) – a lonely white bedroom, adorned with singing greats, floating in a backstage-like contrast of sparkly curtains and faded furniture – is nicely conceived but doesn’t always serve the drama. The lighting (Trent Suidgeest) can lack intimacy. The sound design (Kingsley Reeve), that extraordinary singing aside, feels absent between major transitions.

But they’re mostly quibbles. Particularly with this cast and the extraordinary two women at its centre.
Caroline O’Connor, an outsized music theatre talent for Darlinghurst’s off-Broadway stage, has previously conquered Mama Rose, but this is a slightly different mountain of monstrous stage mum. Unable to hide behind that award-winning voice, O’Connor must inhabit this wily drunk, near irredeemable save for wells of trauma and resentment, with nothing but an age-defying bra, balance-defying stilettos and gravity-defying hair. And those clever Cartwright quips. Subtle it isn’t, but it’s the right side of cartoonish. It’s a tailor-made fit for O’Connor and an utterly compelling performance.

Geraldine Hakewill, a rising talent on stage and screen, plays the skittish, sorrowful LV, who then summons all those familiar voices like a magic trick. In both guises Hakewill is terrific. In small, quiet ways she evokes all the empathy necessary from the audience. It’s a smart, sensitive performance.

Joseph del Re is Mari’s manipulative boyfriend Ray, who sees LV as his ticket to ride. He’s too young for the role but fleshes it out well. Charming Charles Wu is sweet telephone installer Billy, who offers LV a lifeline. Kip Chapman (Mr Boo) and Bishanyia Vincent (Sadie) are mostly comic relief in small roles, though Vincent’s near-wordless performance has real pathos too. The Yorkshire accents, impressively, all appear authentic.

In fact, very little about this play and this production feels inauthentic. Certainly not the pain at its heart. Or those freeing, fabulous voices that miraculously emerge from a much more hopeful place.

The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice plays the Eternity Playhouse until February 24

Image: Geraldine Hakewill and Caroline O’Conner in Little Voice. Photo by Robert Catto

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