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Jenna Russell on playing Marie Lloyd: 'She's a bit like Sheridan Smith'

Russell returns to the stage this evening

Jenna Russell

She's captivated audiences large and small across one of the most prolific careers in musical theatre, but Jenna Russell is about to embark on a very new challenge this evening – breathing life into Marie Lloyd, who, to the uninitiated, was "the greatest music hall artist of her time".

She was also an ardent friend of poet T S Eliot, with the special event this evening and tomorrow marking 100 years since both Lloyd's death and (less than a week later) Eliot's publishing of the iconic poem The Waste Land.

The pair's connection is intrinsic, Russell explains: "Marie was amazing. She runs through The Waste Land like a river; it's full of little nods to her. T S Eliot must have looked at her and thought about how she can reach out and charm an audience – as an artist he must have been fascinated by that." The evening is also set to mark Russell's first time singing in the revered central London venue Wilton's Music Hall.

With Piaf last year and Lloyd this year, Russell has now taken on two roles of famed performers – and playing real-life individuals is slightly different to that of fictional characters: "The joy of playing people who did exist is that you can work with what's out there. What's interesting about Marie Lloyd is that she was very anti-film and recording, because that would mean the novelty of her act was taken away.

"As a result, the sad thing is now we just 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 a bit like Sheridan Smith – someone who can connect to the masses with a sense of authenticity. Connection on a molecular level."

The event will see audiences find Lloyd towards the end of her life: "She had a long-lasting career, but the play is commenting and finding the similarities between Eliot and Lloyd. I don't think it's coincidence that she died in the same year that The Waste Land was published. The outpouring of love that was felt for her from the public was on another scale – 50,000 people turned up for her funeral, which is the sort of figure normally reserved for royals."

What of The Waste Land itself? It's 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 pick itself up after war and calamity – it feels almost like Joe Orton in terms of tapping into the psyche of a nation.

"Poetry has never been something I've jumped into and found solace in, but this project has certainly opened my eyes to it." Though, in a way, Russell admits, she's been working with poetry her whole life: "My favourite lyric, from Sondheim's "I Remember", is like a beautiful poem."