Imagine a stage show where the late, great Judy Garland tops the bill, and the support acts are Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe and Billie Holiday. Apart from the tiresome "some of them are dead" problem, you'd pay good money to see that show, wouldn't you?
Well, now you can, because Theatr Clwyd is staging a brand new production of Jim Cartwright's classic The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, which was specially written for actor Jane Horrocks back in 1992 for the National Theatre. Most people will remember the Oscar-nominated film from 1998, also starring Horrocks, but Theatr Clwyd's take casts the multi-talented Catrin Aaron as the shy, reclusive LV.
"I've never worked on a musical before," admits Catrin, "although I wouldn't really class Little Voice as a musical. It's more of a comedy drama with music."
Catrin trained at the Royal Welsh College of Music and Drama, and has got background in singing performance, including many educational and Christmas shows, "but this is the first time I've done it on my own," she laughs.
It's a reflection of Catrin's talents that the first time she takes on a lead singing role, it's playing Little Voice, a character who impersonates some of the most iconic and established female singers of all time.
"This has been a whole new venture for me," says Catrin. "The director, Kate Wasserberg, took a massive leap of faith with me. She heard on the grapevine that I could do a good Judy Garland impression, and she thought I'd be fantastic as LV. Kate, myself and musical director Dyfan Jones got together in May to decide on the women and songs we'd have on the soundtrack, and then I took singing lessons over the summer with vocal trainer Sam Kenyon. It's been a lot of hard work!"
How difficult has it been for Catrin to develop and perfect her impersonations of these indomitable women, which, aside from Garland, includes Shirley Bassey, Marilyn Monroe, Gracie Fields, Edith Piaf, Billie Holiday, "and a tiny bit of Lulu"?
"It's just been a lot of work, and listening over and over again to the songs, as well as watching footage and documentaries of the women, how they talk and move. Working with Sam as my singing tutor has taught me how to use different parts of my voice to make different sounds.
"There's been a lot of obsession. I went to see Audra McDonald as Billie Holiday in Lady Day in Emerson's Bar and Grill in London, and she was phenomenal. I thought, 'Well that's it, it's just magic!' But I read an interview with her where she said she had Billie Holiday in her ears for ages, and throughout the show's run, so there's an awful lot of obsession!"
|Nicola Reynolds and Simon Holland-Roberts in rehearsal|
"I'd say it's same, it's all mimicry," says Catrin. "It’s the same as when you're acting, you learn from a particular person with an accent, you mimic them and then find your own voice within it. Mimicking a singing voice requires a bit more discipline though, as you have to protect your voice more, but it's the same starting point. Simply listening… and learning where the tongue is placed, where the larynx is placed, breaking it down technically, then putting it all back together. Then adding the feeling on top!"
How hard is it to skip between the different characters? After all, Catrin is playing a young woman who does impersonations of other people. Is it tricky to jump between the different headspaces as an actor?
"It's a challenge, but when LV sings, particularly the Judy Garland songs, they are so personal to her, the lyrics mean something to her. They say what she wants to communicate herself, by channelling other people's voices to do it. That's how I found my way into LV and the impersonations.
"The trickiest thing was to walk on stage as a terrified LV in the club, then jump straight into Shirley Bassey, who is the least terrified person on a stage ever! I had to find a way to go from looking terrified at a microphone as LV, to going nought to sixty for Big Spender in just two bars! But once the medley starts, it's fine. It's in the muscle memory now!"
"Yes, it's like Russian dolls!" laughs Catrin. "It's been a massive learning curve because I wasn't a very confident singer to start with, so I've gone through a bit of what LV goes through, trying to find the joy in expressing something through somebody else.
"These women in particular are so empowering. There's a reason they're impersonated so much, they have so much power and strength, defiance and joy, that people want to have a bit of that and have a go at it. I've been embracing that, because that's what's behind LV's fascination with them too, aside from the connection with her father. It's what these women can give her that she doesn't have herself."
Catrin makes the observation that most of the women LV impersonates have had tough lives of their own, which is something perhaps LV relates to.
"They've all suffered at one point in their lives. Most have had tricky relationships with their mothers or their own children, and this also sits at the heart of the play – the relationship between a mother and her daughter."
Whether it's Judy and her daughters Liza and Lorna, Marilyn and her mentally ill mother Gladys, or Edith and the tragic fate of her daughter Marcelle, there's a definite theme running through the lives of the chanteuses featured in Little Voice.
"It's a play about a mother and her daughter," confirms Catrin. "They are adrift in the world and from each other and their lives. They're stuck and don't know how to communicate with each other. There's a lot of miscommunication in the play. LV and her mother Mari both find ways of trying to escape, and they're both trying to get other people to hear them, listen to them and see them. That makes it sound bleak but it's actually very funny and moving. At the heart of it is a bunch of people trying to break out of the situation they're stuck in."
|Catrin Aaron and Joseph Tweedale in rehearsal|
"Recently I did, and I loved it!" she smiles. "I hadn't seen it for years but it was on TV a few weeks ago, so I asked myself: 'Shall I watch it?', and I did. Jane Horrocks in the club scene just blew me away. I did want to see what she did, but I didn't feel intimated or influenced by it because that film feels like a very different thing, in the changes made, the settings and the characters, to what we've put together. Jane Horrocks does only what Jane Horrocks can do, and I'm doing only what I can do!"
Catrin's "safe space" is her impersonations of Judy Garland, a talent she had before Little Voice came along, but what else does she like to perform?
"I love singing the Judy songs, but the more comfortable I got, the more I loved singing the others too. They're all gloooooo-rious" – Catrin pronounces the word with a palpable devotion to these divas – "but although I only have two lines, I really enjoy doing Billie Holiday. What a privilege to sing all these women!"
The soundtrack used by Theatr Clwyd is pretty much the same as the original play, including Big Spender, Get Happy, Over the Rainbow and The Man That Got Away. Everybody will know these songs, they're in our bloodstream.
"It's a privilege, and a little daunting. But now we've done all the hard work, I'm leaving those fears at the door and embracing the joy. There's no fear in Shirley Bassey; you can't be tentative with Shirley!"
Another star character in the play is cabaret club owner Mr Boo, played by the unforgettable Christian Patterson.
"Mr Boo!" laughs Catrin with delight. "He's amazing! I tell you something, there's a real danger that Christian Patterson is going to steal the show before LV even gets to put her sparkly dress on. Christian's really embraced that working men's club style and he'll get the audience going in the second half. He's fantastic, as is the entire cast.
"This is a big show. We didn't quite realise how huge it was until we started running it. But it's full of laughs and tears and big, big songs, and I think everybody is going to have a really good time!"
And on that perfectly mimicked note, Catrin is off to be fitted for a clip-on fringe which the in-house wig department at Theatr Clwyd has made for her. She might be pretending to be lots of different people in The Rise and Fall of Little Voice, but Catrin Aaron herself is a force to be savoured. Go see her, never forget her.