Devised by Annie Castledine, Steve Trafford and Elizabeth Mansfield
Writer/Translator: Steve Trafford
Director: Damien Cruden
Reviewer: Ron Simpson
It’s telling that the first credit on Hymn to Love – Homage to Piaf goes to the devisers, not the writer or director. It’s an effective dramatic concept that works well in combination with some timeless songs, but the text is limited and the production unambitious. The evening succeeds because of the original idea, the intelligent translation of Piaf’s songs and the quality of Elizabeth Mansfield’s performance.
Despite the many men in her life, it is accepted that Edith Piaf’s great love was Marcel Cerdan, the world boxing champion who died in a plane crash in the Azores in 1949. Piaf never really recovered from that, partly because she felt responsible. She was in New York, desperate to see him, and persuaded him to forget his fear of flying and come to join her.
Annie Castledine, Steve Trafford and Elizabeth Mansfield use her return to New York 10 years later to intersperse a rehearsal in her hotel room with flashbacks to Cerdan’s death, using the telephone to repeat Piaf’s messages to Cerdan, and her memories of other key moments in her life. Piaf’s monologue is broken up by songs being rehearsed, sometimes switching into songs in performance with images projected of previous concerts. The opportunities for linking life and art are endless – Piaf was an artist who lived her life in her songs – and a bolder approach to screen projections might well have paid dividends. As it is, in Bravo pour le Clown a raucous medley of images evokes the circus and the music hall and the projections of Cerdan fighting and on the steps of aircraft are integrated neatly into La Belle Histoire d’Amour, but there could be much more.
The limitation of the play shows up in simple arithmetic. In a performance lasting 85 minutes, after only nine of the 15 songs in the programme Hymn to Love moves from the rehearsal to the concert: no words now, just songs. Clearly what is to be said about Piaf doesn’t take long. The text, rightly focussed mainly on her relationship with Cerdan, is refreshingly free from inaccuracy and distortion, but never burrows far beneath the well-known surface.
On the other hand, the six songs performed at the concert are very much the best saved till last, forming a powerful sequence (perhaps the least familiar, C’est a Hambourg, haunting in a strangely Brecht-Weill vein) while Mansfield and pianist Patrick Bridgman noticeably assume the role of public performers: even Bridgman’s introduction to the opening La Vie en Rose suddenly sounds that bit more rhapsodic than his highly efficient rehearsal accompaniments.
However, it’s Elizabeth Mansfield’s assured and well-judged performance as Piaf that makes the evening. She brings the right haunted intensity to the part and sings with due power and expressiveness, if not the raw passion of Piaf. The song translations by Steve Trafford convey the original meanings far better than the versions that climbed our Hit Parade in earlier years, even if his lyrics trip over their own feet occasionally, in the attempt at authenticity, in songs such as La Goualante du Pauvre Jean, for all that one of Mansfield’s most striking performances.
Damien Cruden’s economical production keeps risk-taking to a minimum, and, with its simple set of piano, chair, stool, table and sheet for projections, will be ideally suited for the play’s tour of rural venues.
Touring nationwide | Image: Contributed