Fame game: Return of Little Voice

Jim Cartwright, above and Jess Robinson as Little Voice and Ray Quinn as Billy, below.  Photo: Paul Coltas
Jim Cartwright, above and Jess Robinson as Little Voice and Ray Quinn as Billy, below. Photo: Paul Coltas
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The man who wrote The Rise and Fall of Little Voice has got his hands on it as a director for the first time. Arts correspondent Nick Ahad visits Jim Cartwright in rehearsals.

I can pay no higher compliment to Jim Cartwright than this: he’s a good bloke.

Not too effusive, you might think, but take into account the fact that he is a Lancastrian and this is the Yorkshire Post, and you’ll understand how big a tribute that is to pay the man.

So, what is it that would force into the pages of the YP an admission that a Lancastrian is not a bad sort of chap? Well, he’s talented, self-effacing, funny – it’s little surprise that the writer and director has landed an acting job for a Sky TV show in which he plays a genial pub landlord. Mine host is what you think immediately you set eyes on the bearded, jovial man.

We’re in a rehearsal room in London where Cartwright is directing his multiple-award winning show The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, for the first time. Turned into a movie with the original star of the stage show Jane Horrocks, this production, in Scarborough next week and Bradford later this month, is the first time the writer has had his hands on the script as director.

Sitting in a comfy armchair in the rehearsal room, he is running Joe McGann and Beverley Callard through their scenes. As I’m ushered into a side room for our interview Jess Robinson, the girl who has the unenviable task of taking on the title role of LV, suddenly belts out one of the old classic songs through which the character expresses herself. “Oh aye, Jess is a great discovery,” says Cartwright.

She’ll need to be. When the play opened at the National back in 1992, it was directed by Sam Mendes and Horrocks blew everyone away.

“Jane and I worked together on Road at the Royal Court, and she’s a good northern lass, and we just got on really well,” says Cartwright.

“We got chatting and I knew she did impressions. If someone in the cast went to the toilet, she’d take them off, she’s cheeky like that.

“The image came to me. I thought ‘wouldn’t it be weird if you opened your mouth one morning and it wasn’t your voice but one of the great divas’…– it’d be weird, wouldn’t it?”

Weird indeed. And it was the germ of an idea that would become a major hit for the writer. It led to Cartwright being feted as an important new writing talent, whose gritty northern sensibilities were very real.

It was an odd time for Cartwright, being nominated for a whole raft of awards and “running all over town”, particularly given his background.

“I was factory fodder. We all were in the seventies coming from where I did. The girls were supposed to go work in Woolies and then got married and the men were meant to head into factories,” he says.

“I used to write stuff at school and I had a good English teacher, but going to a school like that in those days, there was no route to anything like writing.

“Writing was something clever people did over the hill, over in university land. It never occurred to me that writing was something you could make a living at.”

Born in Farnworth, near Bolton, Cartwright’s local theatre the Bolton Octagon, played an important part in his early career.

His breakthrough, however, came down in London. After spending a couple of years being “factory fodder” back in Lancashire, he decided he wanted more from life and moved to London.

“It was all a bit bohemian,” 
is all Cartwright says to explain this odd move to the Big Smoke.

“We had no money, but I enjoyed the lifestyle, I was writing bits and bats and sometimes getting some of my actor friends to take a look at what I’d written and they’d say ‘they’re good these, you should do something with them’.

“But I had no idea what to do with them.”

One of his friends was the Drop the Dead Donkey actor Neil Pearson, whose girlfriend was a director. She showed them to someone at the Royal Court and he was invited in for a meeting.

“You go in there and there’s all those echoes of the Kitchen Sink and the Angry Young Men and all that, it was still in the building in those days the feel of it. It was just so exciting. I went into a meeting, and they said they loved my writing. They commissioned me and I came out feeling like the new Angry Young Man. I took the money and b*ggered off back up north and didn’t write anything for a couple of years.”

A few years later someone new took over the Royal Court and going through the books, wondered what had happened to the bright new hope – and the money he’d disappeared with. “She said they were still interested in finding out what happened with the piece. All of a sudden I was a writer by accident.”

It was 1986, the play was Road and it won all manner of awards. “It was great, it was like winning the Pools. The whole period was great, it was so exciting – but going back north kept my feet on the ground. In London I was this exciting new writer, back home it was ‘can you put the bins out’.”

Interviews, awards, champagne, it sounds like Cartwright was having the time of his life. His next play was Bed, which opened at the National theatre and won more awards. There was no stopping him.

Why did his work, which is resolutely northern, have such an appeal?

“I ask myself the same question. Whatever it is, I just hope it keeps going. I can only think it’s because I write about the human condition. I don’t write – what’s the word, is it political or polemical ? – either way, I don’t write about that stuff, I write about the human condition. It’s about what people go through.

“That’s all I can think it might be.”

Whatever the magic is that makes Cartwright’s work so popular, it works. Little Voice in particular, but all his plays, are translated and enjoyed around the world.

It must be wonderful.

“Well,” he says, laughing, “I suppose you think at least your life hasn’t been in vain.”

A really good bloke.

The story of little voice

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice opened at the National Theatre in 1992, with Jane Horrocks and Alison Steadman. It transferred to the West End, won an Evening Standard and Olivier Award and has been produced around the world.

It tells the story of a reclusive girl, dubbed Little Voice, and her out- of-control mother, Mari. LV spends her time in her bedroom listening to her dead father’s old record collection, impersonating famous old divas and is ‘talent spotted’ by one of her mother’s boyfriends.

Futurist Theatre, Scarborough, Sept 10-15, 01723 374500. Alhambra Theatre, Bradford, Oct 29 to Nov 3. 01274 432000.