Theatre review: Mari Wilson in The Love Thing, Leicester Square Theatre (The Lounge), 6th November 2010

7 Nov

Hits and Misses: from Mari Wilson’s album, Emotional Glamour, which provides much of the musical content for The Love Thing

Dolled Up: Mari Wilson's 2005 album includes the song that gives The Love Thing its name

Never underestimate the power of a few sequins. Romantically bruised, regularly disappointed, ever nostalgic for the music and promise of her youth, never giving up on her quest for stardom, and with an eternally optimistic soul that eventually drives her to modest personal triumph, backing singer Elle has spent most of her professional life waiting for that big break backstage in stinky shared dressing rooms. And when she isn’t waiting backstage, she’s waiting at home for the selfish, feckless bloke who’s never too busy ploughing his own furrow to erode her fading dreams a little bit more. But she is never short of a brave aphorism – or a sprinkling of sequins – to see her through.

Elle is the creation of Mari Wilson, brought to life in a new one-woman musical – The Love Thing – which she has developed with Pete Lawson and features a clutch of beautifully crafted songs written with composer, pianist, arranger and frankly, girl singer’s ideal accompanist, Adrian York. It isn’t an autobiography but the show is largely inspired Wilson’s experiences as a woman and a singer across three decades of show business. And as a result, the character of Elle rings with authenticity.

From a 1960s childhood singing along to Dusty and Dionne – her ‘babysitters’ on the radio – with a hairbrush for a mic and her mum’s sling-backs for a touch of grown-up glamour, she takes us on a journey through the exotic 1980s, and on to the present day. Along the way, she encounters failure (her nearly-hit single bombs; she should’ve gone to the Caribbean and done those sessions with Chris de Burgh after all), serial betrayal, and late, unexpected motherhood. She lays the ghost of her old relationship, and finally meets a man who might, possibly, make her happy. But crucially, she returns to singing and, on her own terms, earns her place in the spotlight – and, albeit still reeking, dressing room. No matter that it’s at the back of a south London pub. It’s a downmarket, refreshingly anti-X Factor affirmation of a long career spent mainly in the wings. And it’s a testimony to Elle’s resilience, her worldly irony and robust humour.

Emotional Glamour: beautifully crafted pop songs written with Adrian York

Mari Wilson never settled for life as a backing singer, of course. She was a big 1980s star and continues to be a very successful artist. But her observations, memories and intimate knowledge of that era – and the highs and conflicts of a singer’s professional and personal life – are central to her portrayal of Elle, and the sympathy with which she plays the role, revealing considerable acting skills in the process.

This is a story told as an hour-long monologue, peppered with asides and re-lived telephone conversations, and interspersed with songs drawn from Wilson’s 2005 concept album Dolled Up (listening to “The Love Thing” sung live in the show, it seems ridiculous that the song wasn’t a huge hit at the time) and the 2008 follow-up Emotional Glamour. They are eloquent, state-of-mind numbers with a clarity of lyric and an emotional tug that pitches Elle’s situation perfectly through a series of scenes. Salt-of-the-earth observations – “Moving In”, with its hints of new beginnings, opens with the disarmingly mundane observation that “Your pants are on the floor” – give way to the darker, torchier sentiments of “Right For You”. “Forever Young” is a fight-back anthem for a generation of women reared on airbrushed celebrity preserved in anti-ageing serum. And “Getting There” is a frank, sophisticated ballad of recovery and survival.

Vocally, Wilson is at the top of her game. In the cramped intimacy (seat behind a concrete pillar, anyone?) of the Lounge in the bowels of the Leicester Square Theatre, she reaffirms her talent as an instinctive interpreter of lyrics, shifting moods in the flick of a very long eyelash and using the limited space to conjure a three-dimensional character with a light touch on the drama.

With their pared down arrangements – and the brilliant York on the piano, contributing sensitive backing vocals and throwing in a cheeky riff from one of Wilson’s 1980s hits, “Just What I Always Wanted” – these pithy pop songs easily make the transition to integrated show tunes. Any small quibbles mainly concern the structure of the piece: the scenes could be more clearly defined, for example, with a stronger sense of the time in which they are set. But at just an hour long, The Love Thing is warm, credible, often very touching and full of potential. Hopefully, this week long engagement has just been the start for a tour de force that showcases the wider talents of one of our best singers in peak form.

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9 Responses to “Theatre review: Mari Wilson in The Love Thing, Leicester Square Theatre (The Lounge), 6th November 2010”

  1. Janet Fullerlove November 7, 2010 at 10:46 pm #

    I saw the first night and totally agree that Mari is superb, a national treasure of a singer. She judged the size of performance to the size of the space beautifully and told the story with skill. I’d LOVE to see this at full whack in a big theatre with all the backing it deserves.

    • Piers Ford November 8, 2010 at 10:25 am #

      Thanks for your comments, Janet – yes I agree. The Love Thing is full of possibilities and could evolve in all sorts of exciting ways – it will be fascinating to watch it progress!

  2. Norn Cutson November 7, 2010 at 11:47 pm #

    Hope she brings the show to NYC!

  3. Lesley Hastings November 9, 2010 at 12:52 am #

    Yes, I agree that only someone with Mari’s considerable experience of life in the music business could convey its ups and downs with such poignancy but also bring out its humorous side, too. A wonderful show, Mari connected so well with the audience and acted and sung from the heart. Let’s hope more people get the opportunity to see this new venture.

    • Piers Ford November 9, 2010 at 10:18 am #

      Thanks for your comments, Lesley. Couldn’t agree more! I’m sure they will get the opportunity as The Love Thing develops. It’s so inspiring to see a really good singer creating new challenges for herself and doing something different really well.

Trackbacks/Pingbacks

  1. Tweets that mention Theatre review: Mari Wilson in The Love Thing, Leicester Square Theatre (The Lounge), 6th November 2010 « The Art of the Torch Singer -- Topsy.com - November 7, 2010

    […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by mal young, Piers Ford. Piers Ford said: Mari Wilson shone in The Love Thing. Read my review here: http://tinyurl.com/292unpq Great show @MissBeehive […]

  2. Leicester Square Television » Theatre review: Mari Wilson in The Love Thing, Leicester Square … - November 9, 2010

    […] rest is here: Theatre review: Mari Wilson in The Love Thing, Leicester Square … Tags: eyelash-and, flick, her-talent, leicester-square, limited, she-reaffirms, square, […]

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    […] and Mari Wilson will be joined in the new year by the equally talented Gwyneth Herbert, as they launch a revived […]

  4. Concert review: Mari Wilson and Ian Shaw at Fleece Jazz (Stoke-by-Nayland Golf Club), 26th March 2011 « The Art of the Torch Singer - March 26, 2011

    […] double acts go, they don’t come much more dynamic than Mari Wilson and Ian Shaw, who dusted Stoke-by-Nayland Golf Club’s Garden Room last night with a touch of […]

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