That Jim Cartwright's The Rise and Fall of Little Voice should have won both the Olivier and the Evening Standard awards for Best Comedy struck me as rather strange on my first acquaintance with it in the early 1990s.

Gripping drama though it is, the play offers little to provoke laughter, except among the sort of people who can be amused by others' misfortune. This will be understood by anyone familiar with the film version, which stars Jane Horrocks (for whom the play was written) as the withdrawn chanteuse of the title and Michael Caine as the greaseball agent who simultaneously exploits her talents and the boozy availability of her sluttish mother.

Confirmation that the play is far removed from the conventional idea of comedy comes in the fine new production (director Tom Daley) being offered until May 26 at the Watermill Theatre, at Bagnor, near Newbury. Starkly revealed, too - as it was in Brenda Blethyn's barnstorming Oscar-nominated film performance - is that while Little Voice is ostensibly the focus of the drama, the character of her ghastly mother is infinitely more interesting.

Widowed some years earlier, Mari Hoff (Lynne Pearson) still tries to wrestle some enjoyment from life. This comes chiefly from the bottles stashed around the filthy kitchen of her Lancashire home, and the amorous adventures these facilitate. Often to be found gleefully sharing the details of these sordid encounters is her fat neighbour Sadie May (Alison Garland), whose loyalty does not spare her the sharp edge of her friend's tongue. So imaginative is Mari in her use of profanities that these come to develop a poetry all of their own and - yes - raise a smile even if you feel you would rather not.

Meanwhile, upstairs, the emotionally damaged Little Voice (Kelly Price), is still mourning her much-loved dad and treasuring the LP records he bequeathed her. Her regard for these is oddly reminiscent of that shown for her animal ornaments by Laura Wingfield in Tennessee Williams's The Glass Menagerie - as is Little Voice's pact with silence. From the discs - the work of Marilyn Monroe, Gracie Fields, Billie Holiday, Shirley Bassey and others - she has learned the songs which, in her performance, provide her one means of expression and a demonstration of a truly remarkable talent.

Acting of the highest order is offered throughout the cast, which also features Barry McCormick as the exploitative agent Ray Say, Nicholas Lumley as a seedy club boss and Mark Bixter as Little Voice's scarcely less dumbstruck admirer. This reliable individual - who meets her as he installs a phone - seems unlikely, incidentally, to follow the example of Laura Wingfield's dad -famously "a telephone man who fell in love with long distance".