Updated: May 31, 2021
Jim Cartwright Octagon Theatre Bolton Albert Halls, Bolton 24 January 2019 to 02 February 2019
Little Voice is a great show to see – I loved Bolton’s production six years ago and they’ve brought back the singing star of that version, Katie Elin-Salt, to take the title role again.
But this time, of course, much has changed. The Octagon Theatre company is temporarily homeless, while the Octagon itself is being modernised for the 21st century, and Ben Occhipinti’s production is on at the upper Albert Hall, just round the corner. It’s not a theatre space, so pretty well everything’s had to be brought in – Amanda Stoodley’s set creates its own tableau and does pretty well to hide the ‘backstage’ working area the hall does not have.
In this play you have to have an upstairs bedroom where Little Voice, the shy but gifted daughter, retreats with her deceased dad’s LP collection and record player, as well as the downstairs of the family home in which her appalling, alcoholic, loud-mouthed, abusive mother-from-hell, Mari, attempts to stagger through life – the set not only has two complete storeys but there’s also enough space to show a bedroom window looking on to the ‘street’ outside.
There’s no revolve to make a quick switch to the club scenes, as there was in the proper theatre, but a motorised streamer curtain around the main set does well instead, and the lights and glitter ball in the auditorium make a good stab at creating the atmosphere for them which is one of the show’s real strengths. In fact I think a straight-on auditorium shape is kinder to it than in-the-round was.
It’s a surreal-but-only-just story that depends really on its two female leads. (The men – Mark Moraghan as Ray the would-be star-maker, Ted Robbins as club manager Mr Boo, and Akshay Gulati as Billy, the young Romeo who’s as shy as LV herself – are all perfectly cast and do a brilliant job, as does Sue Vincent as Sadie, Mari’s ‘OK’ friend, but they’re all essentially subservient).
Katie Elin-Salt is again a wonderful Little Voice, because she can sing like the greats she mimics – Shirley Bassey, Judy Garland, Marilyn Monroe, Edith Piaf and even a bit like Gracie Fields.
But the virtuoso role is Mari, and Sally George is amazing in it. Indeed there’s a danger of the play turning into a tragedy about her rather than the upbeat story of her daughter with which it ends, and I mean that as a compliment – the character is as horrible as they get, and she doesn’t play for sympathy, but there’s a fascinatingly grim inevitability about her decline and final hopelessness.
The cast had a real success on Friday night, but they were up against the odds. One thing was the nastily obstrusive rumble of bass sound from whatever was going on in the lower hall beneath us (that’s a premises management issue, and someone should put a decibel limit on performers down there in circumstances such as these). The other was the quality of the sound system in our hall. I notice that although there are credits for lighting, fights, movement and music in the programme book there’s none for sound design: it’s a reverberant space and needs some expert attention to make all the dialogue audible and the live singing as good as it needs to be.