YORK actor Ian Kelsey returns to his home city to play viperous talent-spotting agent Ray Say in a new tour of Jim Cartwright’s bittersweet comedy The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice from Monday.
In doing so, he will be making his York Theatre Royal stage debut, although the former railway carriage works coach builder did hand out sweets in the guise of Mr Toffee in the foyer before performances of The Railway Children many moons ago in his “first professional gig”.
“I’ve seen many, many pantos and shows there but I’ve never performed there before,” says Ian. “I’m a little bit jittery about the maybe more critical eyes of people I went to school with or who I worked on the railway with. I also hope I don’t meet the Grey Lady [the Theatre Royal ghost]!”
Ian, 55, will be joined in Bronagh Lagan’s production for Glass Half Full Productions by Coronation Street star Shobna Gulati as Mari Hoff and New York actress and YouTube sensation Christina Bianco as LV (Little Voice).
Heavy-drinking, louche, loud Mari and reclusive LV are the contrasting mother and daughter in Cartwright’s fairy-tale, where LV is left to her own devices, embodying the famous divas she plays on repeat in her room, from Judy Garland to Shirley Bassey, from her late father’s record collection.
When manipulative Ray Say hears that cloistered nightingale sing, he foresees an overnight sensation and a route to a pot of gold in a story of the highs and the lows of small-town dreams, family rivalry and finding your voice in a noisy world.
Ian is in a touring show for the first time since The Verdict in 2019. “I was isolating in Dublin for two weeks in a hotel, doing an ITV drama, when Dublin was in its Lockdown number five, only on set for an hour, and this job came through while I was there,” he recalls. “It was my first audition on Zoom, so I had to embrace this new way of working.”
Ian jumped at the chance to play “king of the gutter” Ray in Cartwright’s painfully truthful northern drama. “I’d not the seen the film or the play before, although I was aware of it and what it’s about. But I just started reading the script and found Ray so funny, as well as horrific at the same time,” he says. “How can you not say yes to playing Ray Say?!” he says.
“He’s a bit of a leech really and so self-centred. He uses people. I think he has a good heart, or he had one, but it’s clear he only thinks of himself when it comes to his relationship with Mari. He’s not interested in her once he realises he can better his life through the singing talents of her daughter.”
Halfway through, Ray’s character changes. “There’s a speech where he just rips into Mari at one point and I was gobsmacked by what he says, but it’s brilliantly written by Jim Cartwright,” says Ian.
“He’s a fantastic writer and as you’re reading it you can hear it being said. The rhythms are just how people talk in the world in which it’s set. The characters don’t have much money, but they aspire to live above their station, which is also really funny.”
Can 6ft 3ins Ian relate to the intimidating Ray in any way? “I hope not! But when I’m reading a script, it really helps if I have someone in mind and all their nuances start to come into play.
“With Ray, I’ve got a couple of people in mind, although I don’t want to say who they are of course. I’ve met proper northern gangsters, who act like comedians, but all the time you’re thinking, ‘you’ve got something in your boots’. I can say, there’s also a bit of Johnny, who played my father in Coronation Street, in there too.”
After landing the role, Ian resisted any temptation to watch Michael Caine’s award-winning performance in York director Mark Hearld’s 1998 film. “I don’t want to be influenced by it, otherwise for the audience it will feel like I’m doing my take on his take,” he reasons.
“By not seeing the film, it’s all fresh coming off the page, so the vision of how to play Ray comes from my head.”
Before Ray Say, Ian has taken on several roles associated with film versions. “Such as when I played Andy Dufresne in The Shawshank Redemption, and that was ingrained in me because it’s one of my favourite films,” he says.
“In that instance, you can’t help but give a nod to iconic performances. I’ve done Danny in Grease and I completely pinched Travolta’s walk, the Danny strut. You can’t help pinching from the best.”
This time, Ian has taken a different approach, although he has discussed the role with a fellow actor and Jim Cartwright. “One of the lads out of Coronation Street had played Ray, so we had a really good chat about it, and then, when Jim was in the audience in early June, we got talking about different actors bringing their different trombones to it,” he says.
“You can bring a wheelbarrow of trombones to a comedy, and then after two weeks, you think, ‘OK, I need to hold back those trombones here’!
“What you have to do is to get back to the script and not bring a trombone to the party – although Jim loves trombones!”
Mark Hearld set Little Voice in Scarborough; Cartwright’s play, premiered in 1992, refers only to being set in a northern town. “I think Scarborough’s too big for it. There are too many Ray Says in that town,” says Ian. “It needs to be a one-club town. It needs to be smaller than Scarborough.
“Ray’s the king of that one-club town, which is why, when he hears LV sing, he can see the potential of exploiting her talent. I can only imagine going to perform in somewhere like Wakefield would be big news!”
Ian reflects on the significance of 1992 in his own life. “It’s weird because, I’m 55 now, and that was the year I came out of drama school at Guildford,” he says.
“I didn’t realise people from York could go to drama school: I’d come out of school at 16, did six years at the railway carriage works, doing a coach-building apprenticeship, and then a year at Carris & Son, at Poppleton, making oak-leaf conservatories.
“It was there that I got my allergy to cedar wood and they told me I’d have to wear a face mask – that sounds familiar! – when working for the rest of my career. That’s when I ‘flipped’ and decided to go to drama school, when I was already in my early 20s.
“Three years at drama school, and two years after that I got my first soap role in Emmerdale. They advised me to take five years off my age to get roles!”
Ian – definitely 55! – is enjoying his travels on tour. “Live theatre is different every night and you’re constantly trying to win the audience over. I learned so much doing [John Godber’s] September In The Rain about the set-up for comedy and it’s such a brilliant craft because you’re always learning new things. I don’t think I’ve ever done a job where I’ve not learned something,” he says.
“The thing I’ve been most looking forward to is taking my motorbike with me. One of the most difficult things about being on tour is filling the time between getting up and curtain-up. I’m not one for historical buildings and all that, and if you’ve been on the telly a bit you can’t just go and sit in a coffee bar for the afternoon without being recognised. So, it’s fantastic to just put a crash helmet on and go and explore.”
Already he has taken American co-star Christina Bianco on his own version of a guided tour of York. Come Monday, Ian and his bike will be all revved up with one place to go as he heads home to the city where he cut his performing teeth in Mike Thompson’s Rowntree Youth Theatre productions of Half A Sixpence, Kiss Me Kate and Some Like It Hot at the Joseph Rowntree Theatre. Now, he will have his Say at York Theatre Royal at last.
The Rise And Fall Of Little Voice runs at York Theatre Royal from July 4 to 9, 7.30pm plus 2pm, Thursday, and 2.30pm, Saturday matinees. Box office: 01904 623568 or yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.