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The Rise and Fall of Little Voice review at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough – ‘uncomfortable in its skin’

Serena Manteghi in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough Serena Manteghi in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough
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Alan Ayckbourn looms large in Scarborough. The former artistic director of the Stephen Joseph Theatre is still its resident playwright whose latest play A Brief History of Women will receive its world premiere there in September.

So in inaugurating a new era at the theatre, incoming artistic director Paul Robinson – who has taken over here after a decade-long stint at Battersea’s Theatre503 where he specialised in new writing – has made a populist choice in offering up Jim Cartwright’s brutal, sad and funny story of dysfunctional family relationships, a play that’s very much in the Ayckbourn mould.

Cartwright’s characters inhabit more of a working-class northern world than Ayckbourn’s, but there’s a neat Scarborough connection, in that the 1998 film version was filmed in the town.

Variety act promoter Ray Say desperately wants to take his shy vocal discovery Little Voice (LV for short) into the big time, while LV’s mother Mari hopes that Ray will finally save her from herself and her own romantic disappointments.

Like Ayckbourn, Cartwright is observant about his characters and the play is gritty and occasionally gruelling. But though Robinson’s production is in keeping with the house style here, there’s something a little slack about it. The comic rhythms don’t always land and the mercilessness of the in-the-round setting tends to make some of the actors over-project. Polly Lister’s Mari is brash, brazen and over-busy in both her mannerisms and business – her fight with a recalcitrant ironing board epitomises this.

Serena Manteghi brings genuine pathos and delicacy to the role of the neglected daughter, and her growing relationship with Gurjeet Singh’s similarly repressed phone engineer is touchingly played. Her range of impressions – from Bassey and Garland to Piaf and Julie Andrews – is spot-on; and it ends gloriously in her own voice singing a Fleetwood Mac song.

Laura Crowhurst’s Sadie – “all lard and love”, as Mari puts it – gives a vanity-free performance of real depth. But Sean McKenzie as Ray Say and Sion Tudor Owen as club promoter Mr Boo are dramatic cliches.

Tim Meacock’s set also has clumsy flourishes as it tries to solve the problems of creating different environments, including an above-stairs bedroom for LV, though he does some neat tricks with the lighting grid.

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A slack production of Jim Cartwright's comedy that feels uncomfortable in its skin