“it doesn’t quite land a knockout punch, however, this is important and compulsive viewing”
In Joy Wilkinson’s richly entertaining new play, four women, from diverse segments of Victorian society, find solace from the tedium and oppression of their day-to-day lives in the novel world of all-female boxing. Slugging it out in the backrooms of Islington to be crowned ‘Lady Boxing Champion of the World’, they provoke an aghast (and sometimes violent) response from patriarchal, ‘polite’ society.
Cannily, Wilkinson allows the status of these spectacles to remain ambiguous. Are they a kind of proto-feminist display of solidarity and valour? An exploitative circus, choreographed, literally, by the Svengali-like Professor Sharp (an excellent Bruce Alexander)? Or, as one of the fighter’s relatives strikingly suggests towards the end, an act of mere egotism on the part of the participants? The strength of the play is in its timely suggestion that, in rigidly oppressive societies, simple solutions are hard to come by and ‘progress’ can be tricky to measure.
Wilkinson has worked extensively for television which comes across in the play’s engaging, televisual-style sharp, snappy scenes and intertwining storylines. In fact, the evening feels a little akin to a Netflix box-set (one might see certain similarities with the streaming series Glow). A steady directorial hand is provided by Kirsty Patrick Ward who stages the text with the pace and clarity it demands. Anna Reid’s set-design, somewhat resembling a boxing-ring, uses the intimacy of the Southwark’s studio space to its full effect. From a lineup of strong performances, Fiona Skinner’s brittle, defiant Polly Stokes stands out.
At times, the narrative is pursued a little too urgently. The thoughtful questions posed in the first act get somewhat submerged by the haywire over-plotting of the second: promising narrative threads are rushed through or got slightly lost. Further, whereas the play neatly navigates its individual storylines, one was eager to see more of the women together, comparing their experiences. A bit more time with the boxing matches themselves would also have been appreciated (especially if it meant further opportunity to showcase Alison de Burgh’s brilliant fight direction).
It doesn’t quite land a knockout punch, however, this is important and compulsive viewing.
“what truly drives this production are the performances”
Initially a stage play, “Little Voice” was turned into the hugely successful fin-de-siècle movie starring Jane Horrocks, but has since been staged and well received enough for it to have become, if not quite a classic, a safe bet on the theatre scene. A victim of its success, there is the danger that audiences will cease to be amazed by the story of the shy, reclusive girl who reveals a powerfully beautiful voice. Tom Latter’s revival at the Park Theatre steers clear of that danger with a production that, even for those who know the story backwards, is as fresh as if it were written yesterday.
Desperately missing her dead father, Little Voice spends her time locked in her bedroom listening to his old record collection and perfecting her striking impersonations of famous singing divas. Her mother, the brash Mari, through sheer neglect does her best to stamp out this talent, until she starts dating small-time, dodgy impresario Ray, who attempts to coax Little Voice out of her hiding place. He sees a ticket to the big time. Mari sees an escape route to a better life. Little Voice just wants a normal life. Surely not everybody can get what they want.
Latter’s direction is punchy, assured and, played out on Jacob Hughes’ simple yet clever split-level design, remains faithful to writer Jim Cartwright’s script. But what truly drives this production are the performances.
Rafaella Hutchinson as Little Voice is a master impersonator, capturing the tones and vocal inflections of Monroe, Bassey, Holiday, Garland, Lee – and even Cher. Hutchinson’s transformation from damaged waif to impassioned cabaret star (and back again) is entirely believable, while she manages to trigger those contrasting emotions within you: you are willing her to break out of her shell and achieve the recognition she so deserves, yet at the same time condemning the exploitation.
But the star of the show is undoubtedly Sally George as the relentlessly chattering Mari. A sharp contrast to the silent and fearful Little Voice, yet thanks to George’s captivating performance you can see through Mari’s brash exterior to know that she shares the same insecurities as her daughter. (Interestingly they are also real-life mother and daughter). Her portrayal of Mari is quite magnificent. No pause is left unfilled by Cartwright’s bitingly hilarious text as George delivers her lines with precision timing. Seemingly unaware of the damage she is inflicting, it is all the more heart-wrenching when her daughter finally cracks the hard shell of her self-centredness.
Strong support comes from Linford Johnson as the tongue-tied electrician who woos Little Voice from the rooftops with a nervous uncertainty that belies his faith in her. Kevin McMonagle’s dubious Ray Say pans from leery charm to heartless menace in a riveting performance that lifts his character well out of the pitfall of caricature that is all too easy to fall into with this role. Jamie-Rose Monk as monosyllabic Sadie often threatens to silently steal the show, while Shaun Prendergast takes that threat further with his stand out portrayal of the stand-up Mr Boo: nightclub owner. His club-compere routines are hilarious. While the laughs from the audience are genuine, Prendergast’s own appreciation of his pitch-perfect wise-cracks are a thin veneer that fails to conceal the charred and dying hopes and dreams beneath.
The performances highlight the humour in Jim Cartwright’s dialogue, but here they also accentuate the play’s central themes of neglect, exploitation, grief, loneliness and abuse. When Little Voice herself finally dispenses with her alter-egos and poignantly sings in her own voice we are reminded that this production has its own voice too, which sets it apart from many other versions of this Northern fairy-tale.