In the same week that she joined EastEnders as Linda’s mum Elaine, Maria Friedman returned to her musical roots in a retrospective show of her career, Back to Before, at the Pheasantry on the Kings Road in Chelsea, with her regular MD and pianist Jason Carr. Friedman is a performer who is really at home in a cabaret setting and it is a rare treat to see her so close up, in a 60-odd seat venue (with great pizza too!). Friedman speaks and sings directly to the audience – with frequent eye contact in such an intimate space – immediately engaging with them in humour and building a rapport in a very small amount of time. Hooking us in with hilarious early tales of how she eventually found herself onstage in Oklahoma, via a jingles agency and a chiffon-filled tour of various dodgy venues in Europe, Friedman is a performer who has truly worked her way up through the business, and is an extraordinary interpreter of music with emotion coming straight from the heart.

Having seen many of Friedman’s leading musical roles since her extraordinary Olivier award winning performance as Fosca in Stephen Sondheim’s Passion (though there was no Sondheim in this show) I was reminded of the diversity of the roles and musicals Friedman has done. Friedman reprises these songs with even greater maturity and insight than before, while making them freshly accessible to those unfamiliar with them. The fabulous patter song ‘Words Words Words’ from The Witches of Eastwick, the style of which Friedman herself apparently suggested to the writers when the original song wasn’t working, was certainly rendered as fast as I remember hearing it at Drury Lane (and with the final notes held for longer!). Friedman also revisited the Kurt Weill score of Lady in the Dark, having starred in the RNT’s memorable production, with ‘The Saga of Jenny’, a great story song, recounting her nightly terror of walking across a tightrope every night during the show. Ragtime’s ‘Back to Before’ – also the title of Friedman’s show – was an apt choice as it reflects on the past, and was given a beautiful and direct rendering by Friedman, sharing memories of a one-off concert version of the show that ended in true showbiz style with news of a West End transfer.

Elsewhere there was a characteristic range of musical styles, from a couple of jazz-infused numbers from Blues in the Night to modern musical theatre, with a clearly sung version of the title song from Adam Guettel’s Light in the Piazza, and a moving rendition (with tears in her eyes) of ‘In the Sky’ from Ghetto, written by a 12 year old Jewish boy doomed to death. Friedman was joined by six singers from the Royal Academy of Music at various points during the show and has great interaction with them on ‘Roxie’ from Chicago and ‘At the Ballet’ from A Chorus Line. The latter show was written by Friedman’s late friend and colleague Marvin Hamlisch, and two Hamlisch numbers top and tail the show, ‘The Way We Were’ and ‘What I Did For Love’. The former was a song that Friedman used at an early and disastrous audition, and she mentions the irony of singing it at a major concert in the US with Hamlisch himself at the piano years later – something her younger self could surely never have predicted. And ‘What I Did For Love’ is the perfect mantra for this extraordinary performer who obviously loves what she does. To coin a phrase from another song, ‘nobody does it better’ than Friedman and I would happily go and see her at the Pheasantry every night of her run (large amounts of pizza permitting!). As for her EastEnders debut that very week, it was typical of Friedman not to give it even a passing reference, but to concentrate purely on the music and her own remarkable insight into how to connect with an audience with her own brand of unique warmth and sincerity.