The idea behind Jim Cartwright’s The Rise and Fall of Little Voice is the playwright wondering what would happen if a young girl opened her mouth and it wasn’t her voice that came out, but other people’s. Jane Horrocks burst onto the musical scene in that same play and also later, at the Young Vic, in Richard Jones’ Annie Get Your Gun. It could be that the inspiration here is similar to Little Voice and AGYG: what would happen if a 53-year-old Lancastrian actress, with a smokey yet belting voice, gets onstage and fronts tracks by the most famous of northern punk and rock bands?
What happens is a hybrid mix of dance, music, commentary and tragicomedy as Horrocks and her dance troupe, accompanied by a humorously deadpan band – including an amused Kipper on guitar and glass-encased Rat Scabies holding out on the drums – croon and bellow Gang of Four’s Anthrax through to Morrisey’s Life is a Pigsty.
As discussed elsewhere, these albums, including Fiction Romance and My New House, made up the soundtrack to Horrocks’ 70s and 80s youth. Most of the covers, strung along by a thematically conceived narrative in this pulsating 60 minutes, are a poetic mix of the pain and ecstasy of the North of England quietly losing its soul during the Thatcher years, and reinventing itself by singing about love and all things kitchen sink.
So, “Why sing about it?” asks Horrocks in the intro, as dancers pirouette and gyrate through moves choreographed by Aletta Collins. The answer can be found in Bunny Christie’s stripped back stage design. The recurrent use of ultra-white recalls ‘Persil White’, used as a passing nod to realism via the appearance and reappearance of a whiter-than-white fridge (we are all fridge junkies now, but in the 1970s only 58% of people owned an ice house) and a Formica table, badges of a materialistic culture clashing with the beer-sodden, drugged-up clubs and pubs of the North. We want our dirty pubs, but also our Persil Whites and possessions. These two sets of values rub up against each other; one is a railing against the status quo, the other is an acceptance of it.
This makes the show the perfect compliment to Jim Cartwright’s new play Raz, soon to open at the Trafalgar Studios. Although contemporary, it similarly offers a critique of the disenfranchised and lost northern working class. They, as Horrocks donning her listless boiler suit at the beginning and end of the performance suggests, work hard all week and party like millionaires on the weekend . The music’s similar, but the sentiment is not. If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me, harks back to a related kind of loss of pride, even if we can’t quite pinpoint it. And yet it is there as Michael Walter dances against Tim Reid’s video with its echoes of JG Ballard’s dystopias and Chris Cunningham’s film for Aphex Twin’s Come to Daddy. Horrocks, in her role as curator of these sad tales, watches in melancholic spirit.
It’s theatrical too. One of the most poignant, emotionally-enthralling moments comes during The Smiths I know It’s Over. Horrocks chokingly expostulates, “It’s over and over and over”. It’s like in Harold Pinter’s Ashes to Ashes, where a female can’t ingest the world’s crises anymore and Caryl Churchill’s Escaped Alone where a female character, stuck for words, can only utter “terrible rage”. And it gets you. Horrocks’ howls travel up your spine and ends as tear pricks in the eyes. What’s this cry for? Love lost. Time lost. And not just Horrocks’.
“It’s an archeological exercise,” says Horrocks. But as we know, all archeology is about the future. As the lights dim and Horrocks leaves the stage, we’re left with a certain wistfulness and uncertainty.
If You Kiss Me, Kiss Me is on at the Young Vic until 16th April 2016. Click here for tickets.