The current York Theatre Royal/Ensemble tour of Marie returns Elizabeth Mansfield to a part she first played 20 years ago and reunites the team of actor/co-director Mansfield, writer/co-director Steve Trafford and musical director/pianist Stephen Rose which took the play into the West End in 1996. No wonder the production wears an air of easy assurance!
Marie is sub-titled ‘The Story of Marie Lloyd’, but that’s somewhat misleading. Parts of the story emerge briefly – Marie’s three marriages, the Great Music Hall Strike, Marie’s omission (on the grounds of morality) from the first Royal Command Performance, and so on – but none is fully developed. The audience has to use prior knowledge or imaginative deduction – or read the programme carefully!
What matters is the portrait of Marie Lloyd at the end of her career, still indomitable and irreverent, the enemy of hypocrisy and advocate of a little of what you fancy. The play is structured around a dozen or so of Marie Lloyd’s songs (and a few others, from Tennyson setting to temperance ditty) with interwoven narrative; sometimes Trafford cleverly blurs the line between his script and the original verse. Stage performance, backstage monologue, events re-played, with Lloyd/Mansfield taking all the parts or simply playing one side of the dialogue – all interlock smoothly with each other.
Elizabeth Mansfield is thoroughly convincing as the 52-year-old Marie Lloyd, but one of the striking features of her performance is the ability to summon up the illusion of youth and innocence, as in her singing of the most charming of music hall songs,
“The Boy I Love is Up in the Gallery”. Her vocal transformations are inspired, particularly in the more light-hearted first half: the little girl, shattered boozer and rich contralto do-gooder in the Hackney Temperance Club scene or, best of all, the perfervid baritone desperate for Maud to come into the garden.
Stephen Rose’s piano accompaniment is immaculate, always witty, sensitive and understated, and Sheila Godbolt’s costumes change social class and financial status as economically and effectively as Marie Lloyd’s accent. The production in York’s Studio Theatre is played in a simple setting where every item – curtain, footlights, hat stand, table and chair – has its meaning. The intimate setting aids audience involvement, of course, but, above all, hearing them performed with character and precision in a small studio is a forcible reminder of what good songs forgotten figures like Fred Leigh and George Ware used to write.