Jenna Russell on Playing Marie Lloyd: “She’s Kind of Like Sheridan Smith”

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She’s captivated audiences young and old alike through one of musical theatre’s most prolific careers, but Jenna Russell is about to embark on a whole new challenge tonight: bringing to life Marie Lloyd, who, for uninitiated, was “the greatest music-hall artist of her time”.

She was also an ardent friend of poet TS Eliot, with tonight and tomorrow’s special event marking 100 years since Lloyd’s death and (less than a week later) Eliot’s publication of the iconic poem land of waste.

The couple’s connection is intrinsic, says Russell: “Marie was amazing. She goes through land of waste like a river; it’s full of little nods to her. TS Eliot must have looked at her and thought about how she could touch and charm an audience – as an artist he must have been fascinated by that. Music hall.

With Piaf last year and Lloyd this year, Russell has now taken on two roles as famous performers – and playing real people is slightly different than fictional characters: “The joy of playing people who have existed is that you can work with What’s interesting about Marie Lloyd is that she was very anti-film and recording, because that would mean the novelty of her act would be taken away from her.

“As a result, the sad thing is that we now only have anecdotal evidence – from what we know she didn’t have a great voice but knew how to deliver a song and entertain an audience.

“She’s kind of like Sheridan Smith – someone who can connect to the masses with a sense of authenticity. Connection at the molecular level.”

The event will see audiences reunited with Lloyd towards the end of her life: “She had a long career, but the play comments and finds the similarities between Eliot and Lloyd. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that she died in the same year as land of waste has been published. The outpouring of love that was felt for her by the public was of another magnitude – 50,000 people showed up for her funeral, which is the kind of figure normally reserved for members of the royal family.”

What about land of waste himself? It left its mark on Russell, she says: “The poem comes from a place of great sadness – written in 1922, it examines how a nation can rise again after war and calamity – it almost sounds like Joe Orton in terms of drawing from the psychic of a nation.

“Poetry was never something I got into and found solace in, but this project was definitely an eye opener for me.” Although, in a way, Russell admits that she has worked with poetry all her life: “My favorite lyrics, from Sondheim’s ‘I Remember’, are like a beautiful poem.

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