Essential to playing the lead role of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice are a not-so-little voice and a big capacity to act, sing and impersonate. In Sarah Frankcom's production of Jim Cartwright's grim fairy tale of rising ambitions and falling hopes, Emma Lowndes is outstanding as the central character, Little Voice. She grows from a painfully shy, small-voiced girl to a fully fledged person, finally shedding not only her awful mother but also the inhibiting memories of the father she idolised. Even without the mirror ball turning overhead or the twinkly lights under which she and her man finally escape up and up to never-never-land, this is a star turn.
The centrepiece of the play is her second club act, in which Lowndes - LV barely recognisable in scarlet evening dress and fancy hair - stands on a big revolving LP, transforming herself into supreme chanteuses: Garland, Bassey, Monroe, Piaf. The gestures, the accent, the timbre are all seamlessly mimicked. With the help of the theatre's acoustics, her voice echoes and resonates magically.
Denise Welch is outstanding as Mari, her sloshed, slutty mother, scrabbling frantically around for what she fondly imagines to be love and living but turns out to be shallow sex and sordid shabbiness. Welch captures the vulnerability as well as the gutsiness of this complex woman, so quick with her witty one-liners and so determined to keep her man - or any man. In Lorraine Cheshire, as her slow but tender-hearted pal Sadie, she has the perfect stooge: they are hilarious in their cheesy dance routine to Jackson Five, and touching in their reliance on each other.
Designed to work in the round, which doesn't suit it very well, Liz Ashcroft's set is a cop-out. We really needed LV's attic bedroom to be elevated, and although putting the window in the floor may look clever on paper, on stage it feels surreal. It also does not help Billy (Andrew Sheridan) to make convincing contact with LV via his lighting-lift or his telegraph pole. But turning the audience into Mr Boo's gritty Northern club clientele worked a treat, even if that nice Roy Barraclough, with his frilly-fronted, floppy-cuffed shirt and ghastly wig, isn't nearly sleazy enough as the owner.
David Hounslow makes a believable Ray Say, the smarmy agent who becomes increasingly prosperous-looking as he manoeuvres the unwilling LV into the spotlight. His final disintegration in a heartfelt song is a hard act to bring off, made more difficult here because we don't know how much, if anything, he has invested in LV (in Mark Herman's film version, Say has staked everything on her). With effective lighting by Richard Owen, the production contains some imaginative effects - of which the momentary flickering flames supposedly reducing Mari's home to smouldering ruins are not one.
To 21 February (0161-833 9833; www.royalexchange.co.uk)
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