The inspiration behind Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice was the playwright wondering what would happen if a young girl opened her mouth and it wasn’t her voice that came out, but other people’s. Jane Horrocks burst onto the musical scene in that stage play and subsequent film and also later, on the Young Vic stage, in Richard Jone’s sharp critique and homage to and of Hollywood and Broadway in the main role in Annie Get Your Gun. It could be that the same inspiration behind Little Voice and AGYG is similar here: what will happen if a 53-year-old Lancastrian actress, with a smokey yet belting voice, got up onstage and fronted the albums that made North Britain’s punk and rock powerhouse famous in the theatre that, in the 1970s, echoed to the beats of The Who, who were rehearsing their masterpiece Who’s Next?
What happens is a hybrid mix of dance, throbbing music, commentary and tragicomedy as Horrocks and her dance troupe, accompanied by a humorously deadpan band including an amused Kipper on guitar and glass encased Rat Scabies holding out on the drums, croon, and bellow out Gang of Four’s Anthrax through to Morrisey’s Life is a Pigsty.
It’s already been talked about that the albums, including Fiction Romance and My New House, made up the soundtrack of Horrocks’ 70s and 80s youth. Most of the covers, strung along by a thematically conceived narrative in this pulsating and dramatically exciting 60 minutes, are a poetic mix of the pain and ecstasy of a North of England quietly losing its soul during the Thatcher years and reinventing itself- loudly- singing about love and all things kitchen sink. But “Why sing about it?” asks Horrocks in the intro as dancers pirouette and gyrate through cunnilingus inspired moves conceived by Aletta Collins, who also directs. The answer is in Bunny Christie’s stripped back stage design. In “Persil white” (the washing powder was the epitome of 80s youth culture) it is a passing nod to kitchen sink realism with the appearance and reappearance of a whiter than white fridge (we are all fridge junkies now but in the 1970s only 58% of people owned an ice house) and a Formica table, badges of a materialistic obsessed culture clashing against the idea of dirty beer sodden, drugged up clubs and pubs of the North. We want our drug fuelled dirty beerhouses but also our Persil Whites and possessions, but these two different sets of values rub up against each other; one is a railing against the status quo, the other is an acceptance of it.
Accidentally, this show is a perfect compliment to Jim Cartwright’s new play Raz, soon to open at the Trafalgar Square studios. Although contemporary, it is about a similar scene and a critique of the disenfranchised northern working class who are lost. They, as Horrocks donning her listless boiler suit at the beginning and end of the play suggests, also work hard all week and party like weekend millionaires. The music’s similar, but the sentiment is not. There’s no political engagement or kick against the establishment (as portrayed in traditional kitchen sink realism )and, yes, everyone is having constant sex. If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me, harks at a similar kind of loss of pride, even if we can’t quite pinpoint it. But it is there as dancer Michael Walter pirouettes and hip hops on his own stark dance floor surrounded by Tim Reid’s video that harks to a JG Ballard esque dystopia that smacks of Chris Cunningham’s film Come to Daddy by Aphex Twin. Horrocks, in her role as curator of these sad tales, watches in melancholic spirit.
It’s theatrical too. One of the most poignant, emotionally enthralling moments comes during The Smiths I know It’s Over. Horrocks barely sings but chokingly expostulates “It’s over and over and over”. It’s like Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes (where a female can’t ingest the world’s crises anymore) and Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone (where a female character, stuck for words, can only utter “terrible rage”) meets Horrocks and The Smiths. And it gets you. Horrocks howls like a banshee, the effect of which travels up your spine and ends as tear pricks in the eyes. What’s this cry for? Love lost. Time lost. And not just Horrocks’.
“It’s an archeological exercise,” says Horrocks. But as we know, all archeology is about the future. As the lights dim and Horrocks leaves the stage, there’s a sense of wistfulness and uncertainty. “Life is a pigsty and is always the same”? Perhaps. But whilst there’s music and theatre and may be the beginnings of a new theatrical form…?
Rockingly good, this is a must-see, even if you don’t know or like, the music.
cast includes: Fabienne Debarre, Conor Doyle, Daniel Hay- Gordon, Jane Horrocks, Kipper, Mark Neary, Lorena Randi, Rat Scabies, Michael Walters
direction & choreography: Aletta Collins
Musical Producer & arrangements: Kipper
Design: Bunny Christie
Light: Andreas Fuchs
Sound: Paul Arditti
Video: Tim Reid
Musical Direction: Kipper
Assistant Director: Joe Hancock
until April 16
first published in Exeunt