Musical theatre star Caroline O’Connor swaps West End for Darlinghurst to play The Rise and Fall of Little Voice

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February 08, 2019 05:40:30

When Caroline O’Connor appears, as if materialising, from the darkened stage of Darlinghurst’s Eternity Playhouse, a hush falls over the audience. She eyeballs us, holding steady a moment — before yanking us, as if by the scruff of the neck, into her world: The Rise and Fall of Little Voice.

For the next 20 minutes, the veteran performer barely draws breath as she primps, fidgets, and minces about the stage like a cat on heat.

When she exits, the audience, already in fits of laughter, erupts with applause.

Audiences will often applaud an entrance, but it takes a special kind of performer to inspire applause for an exit.

Speaking to the ABC earlier that afternoon, ahead of the show’s first preview, O’Connor remarks that the audience, “are right on top of you here, so they do see the blood, sweat, and tears — and you can feel their emotions too”.

The 200-seat theatre, where O’Connor holds court this month in the role of overbearing stage-mother Mari, is a far cry from playing to 5,000-seat theatres at the pinnacle of her musical theatre career.

But O’Connor, now 56, says the change is welcome.

“I’m absolutely in love with the idea of someone sitting right next to me and seeing the tears, or the hilarity, and really feeling it,” she enthuses.

“Don’t get me wrong, I love big theatres, but sometimes you don’t have that same connection to the audience as you do in smaller houses like this.”

In fact, O’Connor just won an Offie (aka Off West End) award for her performance in the 2018 production of Kander and Ebb’s The Rink at the smaller Southwark Playhouse.

“I enjoyed it so much in England that when Shaun Rennie [director] talked to me about doing this, I thought, ‘Well, I had such a good time’,” she said.

“And it’s a challenge, you know … If [the audience] are enjoying it, you can tell; if they’re not enjoying it, you can tell. If they’re having a nap, you can see.”

Complex characters

O’Connor has spent the better part of the past decade performing in big commercial musicals abroad.

Her Velma Kelly is the best known of her major roles (she starred in the Australian revival in 1998, and reprised the role on Broadway in 2002), but she also notably stepped into the role of Mrs Lovett in the 2011 Paris Châtelet production of Sweeney Todd at the last moment, to great acclaim (Sondheim reportedly told French newspaper Le Monde it was the best he’d heard the role sung).

On Broadway, she originated the roles of Miss Shields in A Christmas Story and Countess Lily in Anastasia, and in Australia she has had shows written for her: Scarlett O’Hara at the Crimson Parrot, by David Williamson; and Bombshells, by Joanna Murray-Smith.

The common thread through her career is complex, often spectacularly flawed characters.

“I’ve never really played a waif,” O’Connor quips, wrinkling her nose.

From the murderously ambitious Velma to the human-pie-making Mrs Lovett and manipulative Mama Rose in Gypsy, she makes even the diabolical loveable.

“I don’t know why I’m drawn to those characters, because I’m not particularly like that,” says O’Connor.

“They’re strong and wrong those women,” she laughs. “I’m as nervous as everybody else.”

Mari, the mother of the show’s shy namesake, Little Voice, certainly fits this bill.

“She’s this man-hungry, hundred-miles-an-hour, narcissistic alcoholic,” says O’Connor.

“[Shaun Rennie, director] said it’s all about pace, because the one thing she [Mari] can’t stand is silence.

“If she had silence, she would have to think about who she really is.”

From Little Voice to larger-than-life mum

When O’Connor saw the original West End production of Jim Cartwright’s Little Voice in 1992, she identified with the main character: the agonisingly shy young Little Voice (or LV), who is somewhat monstered by her larger-than-life mother. (In Rennie’s production, the role is played by Geraldine Hakewill.)

“I thought, oh my God, someone’s written a play about me,” O’Connor recalls of that first encounter.

In the play, LV listens to records of famous stars like Judy Garland and Billie Holiday as a respite from her mother’s antics and, like a mockingbird, mimics their voices.

“What happens to her when she plays the records and sings the songs, that was my childhood exactly,” says O’Connor.

“For someone like me, who was a shy little girl — and I know nobody believes that but it’s absolutely true — it was escapism.”

However much one can imagine a younger O’Connor in the role, she says: “I don’t know that I would have believed I could do it.”

O’Connor hit her stride later than most. She was 31 in 1995 when she landed her first lead as Mabel Normand in Leicester Haymarket Theatre’s Mack and Mabel, for which she received an Olivier Award nomination.

Up to that point, she had been more or less self-trained in theatre (though she had studied dance, and was a Royal Ballet School alumnus).

“I did a lot of my hard graft in the chorus,” she says.

“I hadn’t been to music theatre school, I hadn’t studied; it was purely instinct.

“To this day, it probably still is.”

What makes O’Connor so captivating to watch is not instinct alone, but hours of preparation.

“Like an onion, you have to peel back the skin to find out what makes this person so unhappy, or self-medicate, or punish herself over and over again.”

She also has an innate, insatiable sense of curiosity.

“I was so fascinated, even as a little girl, to listen to and watch people,” she says.

“My husband says I’m a nightmare to go out with because I’m always going, ‘Look, look!’ when someone picks up their fork funny. I can’t help myself. I love the individuality of people.”

In Mari, she identified elements of Mama Rose (the opportunism and the struggle with ageing) and of Velma Kelly (the comically palpable, barely contained desperation).

“When I think of Velma, I picture this desperate cat with claws splayed at the top of a wall, sort of slipping down but trying to grasp on.”

She makes a daffy wailing sound accompanied by frantic clawing gestures.

“In some ways, Mari is like that too. You see this desperation in her. She meets this man and she’s clinging on to him, just hoping that he will swoop in and save her from this hideous life.”

Where others may stumble into caricature, O’Connor takes care to articulate both the hard and soft edges of a character.

“You know, Velma is not just some brassy American woman from Chicago,” she says.

“Every single person you ever play, there is no doubt in my mind, that they are vulnerable.”

“I do think that, sometimes, that is the key to the stronger characters.”

The Rise and Fall of Little Voice runs at Darlinghurst Theatre Company’s Eternity Playhouse until February 24.

Topics:

arts-and-entertainment,

opera-and-musical-theatre,

actor,

theatre,

australia,

sydney-2000



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