Singing their hearts out for the King in Love Me Tender

Mica Paris raises the rafters in Love Me Tender, a two-hour musical ode to Elvis, writes Ed Power

Singing their hearts out for the King in Love Me Tender

BACKSTAGE in Bromley, Mica Paris is taking a trip into the past. “I signed my first deal when I was 17,” recalls the chart-topping r’n’b star. “I remember everyone telling me I was so mature. My first album was blowing up in the States and Anita Baker met me in LA and said ‘You’re such an old soul’. Actually I was really green. I only looked competent.”

The singer, 46, has just trooped off from a London-staging of Love Me Tender, a jukebox musical celebrating the legacy of Elvis Presley (it transfers to Dublin today). Though her part is arguably slight — she plays the tough-talking matriarch of a small-town saloon — it’s her name up in lights over the billboard and she is unquestionably the big draw.

This is confirmed by her rafter-raising performance of the ballad from which Love Me Tender takes it name, a centrepiece of the two-hour production “It’s such a great song,” she nods. “I have that moment where I get back to being Mica Paris again. Acting and singing are such different things. You use a different side of yourself. When you’re singing you lose yourself in your voice. At least that’s how it is for me — you can’t control it when you’re singing. It’s not something that is dictated from outside. It’s a spirit that infuses you. When you’re acting, in contrast, you are ‘present’ very much. You are never able to totally let go.”

While still highly regarded as a performer, Paris has lately also had a profile as a reality TV star. She appeared on Strictly Come Dancing and reached the semi-finals of Celebrity Masterchef. But despite coming across as grounded and likable she didn’t especially enjoy either experience. Her talent is as a singer. Would she do another reality show? Probably not.

“I’ll do everything once,” she says. “I’m never afraid of trying new things. As long as I don’t make a twit of myself I don’t mind. What happens is that I get quite bored of the rigidity of the music business. You do an album, go on tour, do another album. And on and on. I like to mix it up.”

She certainly has a great deal on her plate right now. As well as appearing in Love Me Tender, which visits Dublin’s Bord Gáis Energy Theatre for five nights this week, she contributes to David Gilmour’s forthcoming solo album, Rattle That Lock.

“I still do music,” she nodes. “I love to do other things because when I do come back to music, it’s fresher. It’s like — oh yeah, this is what I was MEANT to be doing.

Love Me Tender also stars Shaun Williamson, still best known as Barry Evans from EastEnders, a soap he left 11 years ago (he insisted the character be killed off so that he was not tempted to return).

“I went to drama school aged 27,” explains the avuncular 51-year-old in his dressing room. “I didn’t leave until I was 30 and then I got EastEnders. Consequently, the first time I stepped on stage I was 40. I’ve been making up for lost time. In the past 11 years I’ve been in 25 stage productions. I’ve gobbled it up. Actors always want to be on stage. That’s where they dream of being, really.”

It’s funny, he says. All these years later, and people still know him as Barry. At the height of his EastEnders fame he recalls not being able to enjoy a simple meal with his family. He’d spend half the night having his ear bent by fans. The attention was flattering — yet he could take only so much.

He enjoyed EastEnders but acknowledges that it typecast him. For that reason he’s had to make his own way rather than assuming meaty screen roles would come along. Indeed, arguably his most memorable post-EastEnders performance was playing an exaggerated version of himself in Ricky Gervais’ Extras. He considered passing but, appreciating how hilarious it was, did not feel he could turn down the opportunity.

“After EastEnders I went straight into Saturday Night Fever in the West End. I’ve kept busy, doing a lot of pantos and jukebox musicals. I’ve always made a point of dramatically stretching myself, however.

“I’ve done a lot of small plays that pay 220 quid a week. As an actor it’s important that you challenge yourself,” he says.

Not that he’s sniffy about Love Me Tender. Indeed, he fairly leaped at the chance to appear in what amounts to a full-blown Elvis hagiography.

“I was always a massive Elvis fan. Massive. My dad had a boxed collection of about 10 of his albums. I used to learn them all off by heart. Whenever I hear one of his songs on the radio, I instinctively know what song follows on the original LP. “

Across the hallway, Mica Paris is looking forward to that evening’s performance of Love Me Tender (she’s just done the matinee). Though acting is a new challenge, she is comfortable on stage. It was this same self-belief which permitted her to feel utterly at home when Prince invited her to perform with him at London’s Camden Palace in 1988. She was young and ‘green’ yes but still took it utterly in her stride.

“I was obsessively ambitious,” she says. “It made me sick. I started singing in church, six days a week from the time I was five until I was 15. Eventually I got tired of the church and wanted to be a star.The religion thing had started not to agree with me. I was one of those kids always asking questions. I drove everyone flipping insane. But I was determined to break out, do my own thing. All these years later, I haven’t changed.”

‘Love Me Tender’ is at Bord Gáis Energy Theatre, Dublin until Saturday.

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