Set in a small town in the north, this is a play about a young girl (Little Voice or LV for short) who spends almost all her time obsessively listening to records of great female singers such as Shirley Bassey and Judy Garland. When her Mum's latest boyfriend, Ray Say, discovers that LV can impersonate the greats, he sees fame and fortune ripe for the picking and persuades her to display her mimicry at a local club.
The success of this show really hinges on Little Voice's ability to mimic famous female vocalists. This could produce two very different scenarios. First, it could be that Ray's view of LV's abilities is clouded by a desperate need for success, and we discover that LV just doesn't have the required vocal talents. On the other hand, it could be that LV really does have the capabilities to reproduce the power of the great female singers. The latter option obviously provides the element of surprise and enormous entertainment value. On the other hand, the former scenario could add dramatic potential and depth.
Little Voice is played here by 18 year-old, X-factor competitor Diana Vickers. Ms Vickers certainly has the basic credentials for the role. First she can obviously sing, and she's also from Lancashire so presumably has an inkling about the culture of northern towns and clubs in particular. But though she's obviously worked hard to copy the singing style of the likes of Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey, I'm afraid the results are just not surprising or astonishing enough. Her version of Ms Bassey's vocal style focuses on volume rather than quality, and her mimicry of Edith Piaf sounded more like a canary being strangled. In fact, you could probably find a dozen artistes treading the boards of northern clubs who could do a similar, if not better, job to Ms Vickers. And though the audience were kind – almost visibly willing her to pull it off – I detected a note of disappointment in the muted applause and the failure to attract the hoots and standing ovation one might have expected. In Diana Vickers' favour, I have to say that her acting far exceeded my expectations. Her delivery was well-timed, and she more than adequately portrayed a withdrawn and excessively timid young woman whose life is spent in the shadow of a blousy mother. And that's where the second major problem lies with this show.
Mari Hoff, LV's mother, is played with almost boundless energy here by Lesley Sharp. Though Ms Sharp ably convinces us of Mari's faults and produces a first-rate performance, the role itself dominates the show to the extent that it actually becomes extremely tedious. True, it takes time to show what a character is actually like. But Mari Hoff has almost the entire script for the first 30 minutes or so. Over-the-top and unnecessary.
'Little Voice' is essentially a play about women, particularly LV and her Mum. But there's also a finely-honed performance from Rachel Lumberg as Mari's friend and neighbour, Sadie, who also manages to surprise with her nimble version of the splits. On the other side of the gender divide, there's excellent support in the guise of Marc Warren's talent agent, Ray Say, who is basically a cross between a second-rate western crooner and first-rate desert snake. Tony Haygarth neatly captures the persona of a northern club compère, complete with auburn wig, and James Cartwright provides a suitably awkward and diffident telephone engineer who overcomes his shyness to court LV.
In many ways, this is an entertaining production by any standard. I don't think it had aspirations to be anything else. But in the end, it couldn't reach the goal it had set it self because Diana Vickers' impersonations just aren't impressive enough.
"For all the hectic business of Terry Johnson's production, this is a play that doesn't quite pack the punch it did on a first viewing."
Michael Billington for The Guardian
"Diana Vickers...gave a five-star creamer of a performance. All right, the show itself is probably only a three-star job, but Miss Vickers's voice growls from nought to sixty faster than an Aston Martin."
Quentin Letts for The Daily Mail
"Amusing, affecting and decidedly old-fashioned."
Henry Hitchings for The Evening Standard
"What’s remarkable about encountering Diana Vickers for the first time on stage is that it turns out that she can act as well as sing, and more than hold her own in the company of seasoned professionals...Popular theatre doesn’t come much better than this."
Charles Spencer for Daily Telegraph
"X Factor finalist, Diana Vickers, is currently failing to add either lustre or plausibility to Terry Johnson's energetically mediocre revival of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice."
Paul Taylor for Independent
"Diana Vickers acquits herself well in this polished revival of Jim Cartwright’s 1992 play."
Benedict Nightingale for The Times