The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice (KE), The Authorised Kate Bane

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JOYCE MCMILLAN on THE RISE AND FALL OF LITTLE VOICE at the King’s Theatre, Glasgow, and THE AUTHORISED KATE BANE at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, for Scotsman Arts Magazine, 18.10.12
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The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice 4 stars ****
The Authorised Kate Bane 3 stars ***

IT’S EXACTLY twenty years since Jim Cartwright’s jagged and beautiful play The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice was first seen at the National Theatre in London. In that time, it has become one of the best-loved stories in modern British theatre, and the subject of a magnificent film version, starring Brenda Blethyn and Michael Caine as the heroine’s rowdy mother Mari, and her latest fancy-man, the ageing would-be showbiz agent Ray Say; and it’s not difficult to see why.

For at the core of the story – in the character of Mari’s fragile teenage daughter, Little Voice – there lies an exploration of the long, passionate love-affair between the British working class and the popular music of the mid-20th century, most of it American in impulse and origin. Up in her bedroom, in the little back-to-back house she shares with Mari in a fading Lancashire mill-town, Little Voice tends devotedly to her dear, dead fathert’s precious record collection of classics by great female singers, from Judy Garland to Shirley Bassey. She rarely speaks, and never goes out. Yet she can sing all of those songs, perfectly imitating the voices of the greats; and when Ray Say hears her, he thinks he has found the showbiz goldmine he’s been looking for.

The path Cartwright navigates through this story – now revived in a touring production directed by the playwright himself – is not a simple one, despite the show’s huge popular appeal. LV’S relationship with her own gift is complex, and not resolved at the end of the play. The portrayal of Mari, the gobby, vicious, strangely poetic character at the heart of the drama, veers between impassioned sympathy, and frightening levels of misogynistic disgust. And the play undoubtedly belongs to the 1980’s, the decade in which it was conceived, rather than to the world we live in now.

Yet throughout, the play blazes not only with the odd glimpse of LV’s talent, but with a fierce, comic-grotesque vision of the energy of English working-class life in the 20th century, its possible squalor, its precarious living, its sudden fierce bursts of glamour and yearning. Cartwright’s production takes the story slowly, without any great sense of driving pace; and it seemed to fall prey, on its opening night at the King’s, to a few technical gremlins.

Yet it makes space for a fine, complex performance from Beverely Callard as Mari, and for some dazzlingly glamorous musical outbursts from Jess Robinson’s slightly comic-ironic Little Voice. And the whole social-club setting is splendidly recreated by a cast of six extra players, led by Duggie Brown as club compere Mr Boo. There’s bingo in the interval, raffle tickets for sale in the stalls, music for those who love it, and a real drama about how narrow, limited lives give rise to fierce emotional violence. And there’s also one of the sweetest love-stories in all 20th century theatre, as Little Voice and her admirer Billy, a junior phone engineer, finally rise above it all on his little fork-lift van, into a new world of song and light.

At the Traverse, meanwhile, the award-winning Edinburgh company Grid Iron – most famous for their explorations in site-specific theatre – comes thudding down to earth with an elegant but oddly uninteresting new play by Ella Hickson, whose superb collection of short monologues Eight propelled her to Fringe stardom just four years ago. The Authorised Kate Bane is a play by a young playwright about a young playwright, and essentially shows what we know to be a fictionalised version of a weekend encounter between Kate, her boyfriend Al, and her parents, a long-separated couple called Ike and Nessa.

As the action unfolds, we see Kate sometimes taking part, and sometimes sitting at her desk, tapping out and reinventing the scenes on her laptop; at the heart of the drama is her desperate need – before she can commit herself to Al – to come to some resolution of her tortured relationship with her needy and pretentious father.

All of this is realised with tremendous technical skill, over 100 minutes of continuous action, in Ben Harrison’s immaculately -directed production, which flicks effortlessly between different levels of reality, using both Becky Minto’s storage-box set and Alberto Santos Bellido’s ever-changing light; there’s also a searingly honest and beautiful central performance from Jenny Hulse, fresh from her triumph in Vanishing Point’s controversial Edinburgh Festival show Wonderland.

What remains, though, is a question mark about whether this intense middle-class drama really carries enough meaning to be worth the effort. Hickson’s drive to get to the heart of the damage inflicted by bad marriages and broken homes is impressive, and in that she probably speaks for a generation who have known too much material privilege, and too little emotional security; there’s also a flicker of something wider and more political, in the final confrontation between a mother born in the 1950’s who has rejected marriage and monogamy, and a daughter born in the 1980’s who yearns for both.

That scene, though, seems like the ghost of a bigger, better play, flitting through the texture of an intense but self-absorbed struggle with a very specific set of problems; and compared with the dazzling range of voices Hickson created in Eight, this play seems to exist on a very narrow canvas indeed, like a deftly-presented 21st century version of the kind of drawing-room drama that could have been written any time in the last half-century.

The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice at the King’s Theatre, Edinburgh, until Saturday; The Authorised Kate Bane at the Traverse Theatre, Edinburgh, until 26 October, and at the Tron Theatre, Glasgow, 30 October-3 November.

PERFORMANCE OF THE WEEK

She’s most famous for her role as Liz McDonald in Coronation Street; but this week, actress, writer and fitness guru Beverley Callard acts up a storm at the King’s in Edinburgh, as loud-mouthed mother Mari in The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice. It’s a show for those with strong stomachs, and a taste for the extreme; but in the end, Callard makes something truly memorable of this once-glamorous wreck of a woman, drunk, nasty, foul-mouthed and bullying, but also – at the deepest level – heartbroken by the failure of her life, and by the narrowness of a world that could never cope with her blazing energy.

ENDS ENDS

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