Theatre interview: Nancy Sullivan talks Little Voice

PIC: Keith Pattison
PIC: Keith Pattison
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Taking on the role of Little Voice is a huge challenge, but Nancy Sullivan tells Nick Ahad why she’s more than up for it.

Almost ten years ago Nancy Sullivan graduated from drama school and was an excited 21-year-old landing her first job. The West Yorkshire Playhouse, one of the UK’s leading regional theatres, wasn’t a bad place to start – and Sullivan started at the bottom. Back then, she was an understudy in a production of The Wizard Of Oz at the Leeds theatre.

Now, Sullivan is on the main stage once again, only this time the circumstances were a little different. This time she’s in the title role.

“It’s a big role,” says Sullivan, the beaming smile obvious in her voice. In the second act of The Rise and Fall of Little Voice Sullivan, as LV, is on stage alone save for a microphone and a tasseled glittering curtain and she has the audience in the palm of her hand.

“We’ve had standing ovations at every performance so far,” says Sullivan, with genuine joy. In the play, turned into a film starring Jane Horrocks and Michael Caine, LV is a damaged young woman. Her mother, while not exactly abusive, is a long way from Mum of the Year, and has given her daughter little stability since her husband and LV’s father died.

The only way LV can find a voice is in impersonating singers of yesteryear, the ones she listened to on her dad’s records, now her most prized possessions. Eventually – massive spoiler alert – through the singers like Judy Garland and Shirley Bassey, she finds her voice.

The biggest problem with taking on a role like this, is that you don’t just have to have the acting chops and be able to sing – but be able to sing like Edith Piaf, Judy Garland and the rest.

“It is quite daunting to start with. I have always enjoyed doing Piaf and Garland and am a big fan of their work because of where they sing from – their songs come from a really tragic place and a need to survive,” says Sullivan, who appeared in reality TV show I’d Do Anything and is a great example of tenacity. “At the audition I had to do two impressions – I did Piaf and Judy. At the next audition I had to do five and at the next I had to do seven. It was a tough process.

“Performing songs in the style of many different singers in quick succession is a really difficult skill, before LV I had never done any of these voices professionally. In truth, I used to do it when I’d had a few drinks, for a laugh, but when I was up for the role I realised I needed to work out how I was always able to do the voices.”

Sullivan discovered that the key to singing like Judy Garland was that “she always sounds like she’s smiling and a bit drunk and very rarely finishes a word, just leaves it hanging in the air” while when it came to Piaf she’s “very nasally, with a lot of vibrato”. So I just thought that if those were the rhythms for these two, then I had to put it into practice with the singers I didn’t know, like Billie Holiday, Marilyn Monroe and Shirley Bassey, and work out technically what they were doing.”

Given that Sullivan also felt an important part of the way Piaf and Garland sang was from a place of “resilience and survival” she decided to research the lives of the other singers. “Discovering, for example, that Billie Holiday was a huge drug addict was really helpful in singing like her.”

Once she had that it was the old secret – graft. “Thank god for my phone – I recorded myself singing like them, played it back, over and over–at one point I think I had 105 recordings on my phone of me just trying to get better,” says Sullivan. The singing, while vital, is only one part of playing LV. A timid mouse of a creature, she also has plenty to do when not showing off the incredible talent for mimicry. “The challenge of the acting is in trusting the virtual silence that you perform with in the whole of the first act. It’s a difficult thing to do because LV has to go almost unnoticed.”

From understudy to lead role, I don’t think Sullivan has to worry about going unnoticed.

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, West Yorkshire Playhouse, to July 4. 0113 2137700.