MANY stars valued the apprenticeship they served in the working men’s clubs in which careers were shaped and talent sharpened.
Sir Tom Jones, for example, often alludes to this in his stage performances, saying that if the Welsh Valley audiences didn’t like you, then they let you know.
But for every Tom, there were a thousand hopeful wannabees who became neverwas-ers, condemned to obscurity and buried beneath the bingo in northern pubs and clubs.
Such is the world of Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, a touring production which is nothing less than an absolute triumph (Theatre Royal, Nottingham).
There is an outstanding performance from Beverley Callard, of Corrie fame, as Mari, a classic mutton-dressed-as-lamb, sleazy, foul-mouthed widow, clothes far too small, trying to glam up – ‘all lacquer and liquor’ and get out on the pull for some man to rescue her from the grotty, Lancashire terrace with dodgy wiring she calls home.
Upstairs in her bedroom is her mousy daughter LV, Little Voice, so named because nobody can hear her speak, or perhaps it’s because nobody ever listens to her. Her only solace is found in the vinyl record collection of her late father, which consists entirely of the great pop divas ranging from Judy Garland to Julie Andrews.
Along the way, LV (Jess Robinson) develops a rare talent for impersonating these icons and is overheard by Ray Say, an oily local talent scout played by Phil Andrew, in the absence of Joe McGann.
This could be it, his crack at the big time via LV, but it is a different matter altogether to get her on stage at the local working men’s club run by Mr Boo, a lovely role for veteran comedian Duggie Brown.
Eventually she does the gig and here Jess Robinson treats us to a stunning medley which includes Ethel Merman, Judy Garland, Liza Minnelli, Julie Andrews and a cracking Tina Turner which nearly blows the roof off. Sometimes the vocal subtleties are astonishing: flashes of Garland in Over the Rainbow, The Man that Got Away and Get Happy are quite remarkable.
It’s all downhill for Ray after this as LV decides she doesn’t want to do anymore and finds comfort from her fledgling boy friend Billy, beautifully underplayed by Ray Quinn. Mari’s world crumbles – even her put-upon, overweight and faithful friend Sadie (Sally Plumb) finds her a figure of fun in the end as LV finds her own voice.
Before the opening and during the interval the audience is treated to a taste of clubland, with Duggie Brown as host and there’s even bingo, called by John Cockerill. The prize? A tin of Carnation evaporated milk. But it is a large one.