According to her programme bio, Diana Vickers first came “the country’s attention in August 2008 as millions of viewers tuned into X Factor”, and she quickly “became one of the stars of the show, a talking point everywhere from factory floors in Glasgow to basement bars in Dalston, and finished fourth.”
And how here she is, just over a year later, playing the title role part in the new West End production of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice. But though she may have become a talking point in Glasgow factories and Dalston bars, I have to confess that until now she had not entered my consciousness at all. It’s not so much that I don’t get out enough that I get out far too much, and am therefore never in to watch TV.
But there’s also a danger in the fast-evolving world of TV that the conversation has moved on: today’s papers are full of news of the latest X Factor discoveries, a pair of Irish identical twins called John and Edward Grimes - dubbed Jedward by the already adoring public - who may be on track to win this year’s show. It can only be a matter of time before they’re signed on for Blood Brothers, surely (where just this week former Spice Girl Mel C took over the role of Mrs Johnson - from another former X Factor star, Niki Evans).
I missed the opening of Little Voice last week as I was in New York, so belatedly caught it last night - and theatre owner Nica Burns told me they were eight seats short of putting out the house full signs last night. But instead there was already a board out front with the entire text of of Charlie Spencer’s Telegraph review on it that claims, “Popular theatre doesn’t come much better than this.”
I’m in fact in full agreement - but that’s really just my opinion, of course. A Guardian reader wrote to the paper last week to state that Michael Billington’s review of the play was plain wrong, according to readers’ editor Siobhain Butterworth’s column in the paper on Monday, where she reports the reader saying, “Mr Billington writes an appraisal of Jim Cartwright’s play in comparison to the canon of 20th-century playwrighting. Most readers do not spend four nights a week at the theatre. The reader will, in all likelihood, not have seen half the plays he references, and their sole concern will be, ‘If I spend 90 quid on a pair of tickets, will my partner and I have a good night out?’ Lovers of theatre and shows should be informed that this is a corker of a production, right up their street.”
In fact, Michael Billington’s review only references a handful of other plays: “The nervy daughter tethered to a blowsy mum echoes A Taste of Honey. The scene where, having triumphed over a northern club audience, Little Voice is ignored by both her mother and a tacky agent is pure Pygmalion. And the heroine who sheds her imitative talent to be personally empowered reminds one of a stream of plays from Roots to Educating Rita.” And that is surely part of the job of an informed critic: to offer some kind of background, from which we can discern what has informed their taste, or not, for this particular play. As Billington himself responds to Butterworth, “Criticism is meant to offer more than a simple consumer guide or straw-poll of audience reactions. The critic, ideally, is there to describe and evaluate the show and put it in some kind of context: in the case of Little Voice, the context of the original production and similar plays about female empowerment. The bottom line is that a review is only an expression of one person’s opinion: one with which the reader is perfectly entitled to disagree.”
But there’s a bigger question hanging over the fate of the rise and fall of theatre itself, at least according to The Independent’s Paul Taylor, who in his review suggests, “There may come a day when you will have to have featured in a viewer-voted TV talent contest to do anything of note in London theatre - not just star in a West End show, but direct Shakespeare, run a flagship national company, the whole shebang. So I suppose we should be relatively calm about the containable fact that an X Factor finalist, Diana Vickers, is currently failing to add either lustre or plausibility to Terry Johnson’s energetically mediocre revival of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.”
He proceeds to suggest, “The blame lies not with Ms Vickers, but with the misguided producers.” He is duly able to put the performance into the context, as Billington suggests a critic should, of the original production: “When Jane Horrocks took the part of “LV” for Mendes (and in the later movie), she was piercing. Her Little Voice seemed to carry round her own micro-climate of withdrawn grief and achingly suspended potential. The voices were her patrimony and her amulet against a hostile world and they seemed to possess her with an uncanny mediumistic power. Vickers, by contrast, is just an inexperienced performer who has been taught to do a passable Shirley Bassey and Cilla Black, but whose Judy Garland has none of the right needy, neurotic throb. She looks mighty fine in her silver, slit-up-the-side number in the spectacularly lit climactic concert, but where Horrocks was riding a vortex of rapturous ventriloquism, Vickers is merely meandering through a medley.”
That, too, of course is a matter of opinion: I actually found her tentative inexperience perfectly in synch with the character’s own painfully shy presence, and her voice really remarkable. I may have come late to her, but she’s a discovery for me, all right; and the audience rightly cheers her.