A new direction

Stephen Joseph Theatre's new artistic director has chosen Little Voice for his debut. Theatre correspondent Nick Ahad reports.
HIDDEN TALENT: Serena Manteghi as LV is rehearsals for The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.Picture: Sam TaylorHIDDEN TALENT: Serena Manteghi as LV is rehearsals for The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.Picture: Sam Taylor
HIDDEN TALENT: Serena Manteghi as LV is rehearsals for The Rise and Fall of Little Voice at the Stephen Joseph Theatre in Scarborough.Picture: Sam Taylor

For the second month in a row, audiences are about to discover the fibre of a newly appointed Yorkshire theatre’s artistic director.

As with Sheffield Theatres’ Robert Hastie, Stephen Joseph Theatre’s Paul Robinson has actually been in post as the artistic leader for almost a year now, but it is this month we really get to see his mettle.

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“I directed the Christmas show, but that was me doing what I could with someone else’s choice. This has more of my creative energies behind it,” says Robinson.

‘This’ is a new production of Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice which opens at the Scarborough theatre later this month.

For Robinson it marks his arrival proper at the famous Scarborough venue, but it also marks a change of pace and, it feels, a change of philosophy that drives the theatre.

Famous of course as the home of Sir Alan Ayckbourn, the Stephen Joseph Theatre, named after Ayckbourn’s mentor, is a part of the Yorkshire theatre ecology while also standing apart, making its own rules.

Robinson is clearly ready to make his mark.

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“When I saw Little Voice at the National Theatre in 1992 it felt like it announced a type of theatre that felt more accessible, that meant more to me,” he says.

“I was a slip of a 17-year-old lad at the time, but it felt like a theatre making a more popular choice, more accessible somehow. It had this brilliant combination of poetry and everyday language that felt really powerful.

“I felt it was a good play for me to do as my first here, something that announced a new artistic direction for the building. Something that is a bit more town facing, inclusive. I wanted it to announce that we were on a level with the town.

“I think until now our offer at the theatre has been towards the visiting economy, so this play is as much for the people in the town, that’s the imperative of staging Little Voice.”

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Wow. That, I was not expecting. A newly arrived artistic director is supposed to pay deference to the past while suggesting that to come will be evolution not revolution.

Robinson is revolting, in the best possible way.

“We’re taking things in a different direction. I’m hoping to continue the theatre’s legacy in a more focussed way.

“We’re generating a literary department and literary policy for the first time and it has to do with telling local and relevant stories. It feels a bit more outward looking.”

Despite his bold words, Robinson is too smart a man to throw out the baby with the bathwater and the cash cow (and brilliant playwright) Sir Alan will remain a vital part of the theatre and programming. That said, it is interesting to hear that he wants to take the theatre in such a different direction.

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Robinson is a breed of artistic directors who appear to have a social conscience they simply can’t ignore and that is giving them their guiding principles.

For the new man at the Stephen Joseph Theatre that means reflecting the modern world he sees around him. The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is a vital part of that.

“If you were to compare what you saw on the stage even as recently as last year, with what we are doing this year, you will see quite a difference. For a start BAME actors populate the season and a brilliant young actor who is disabled, Amy Trigg, is playing the protagonist in one of our productions. Our Little Voice is mixed race and there is a brilliant British Asian actor playing Billy,” says Robinson.

“That is about reflecting the diversity that is out there and beyond the four walls of this building and giving people a diversity of choice.

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“There’s a whole thing about Scarborough being a difficult place for people to achieve things. We want to be part of getting a generation to think of Scarborough as a place they don’t have to get away from to be successful.”

It’s easy to see why Robinson has chosen Little Voice as his first play: it does everything he says he wants the theatre to do.

Famously filmed in Scarborough when it was turned into a movie starring Jane Horrocks and Michael Caine, the film is about people being trapped in their own lives, desperate to escape.

Virtually mute Little Voice comes alive when she sings the songs her absent father used to play. Her mother, Mari, is equally trapped in her own way.

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“Mari Hoff should be up there as one of the defining characters of the century.

This person who has borderline personality disorder, at once a victim and who victimises, you can see her connections to Blanche DuBois and to plays like Roots and A Taste of Honey.

“Fundamentally the play fuses this incredible lyric language with great humour.

“It won the best comedy Olivier but the second half is a seriously dark comedy at best.

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“That’s the thing, though. When you make the audience laugh, you can take them to some really dark places.”

And what of the places Robinson is going to be taking his audiences now that his reign in Scarborough is truly underway?

“The art will always come first. We’re going to be making physical changes, opening up the building, and hopefully start serving the people who are here all year round a little more,” he says.

Is he confident?

“I’m throwing everything I’ve got at it.”


The Rise and Fall of Little Voice was playwright Jim Carwright’s first major hit.

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Staged at the National Theatre in 1992, starring Jane Horrocks and Alison Steadman, directed by Sam Mendes, the play transferred to the West End. It went on to successfully play on Broadway a year later.

In 1998 the play was turned into a film, adapted and directed by Bridlington-born Mark Herman, with Brenda Blethyn being Oscar nominated for her portrayal of Mari Hoff.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, Stephen Joseph Theatre, Scarborough, June 15 to August 19. Tickets 01723 370541.