Writer: Pam Gems
Director: Elizabeth Newman
Reviewer: Dave Cunningham
On a rain soaked street in Belleville Edith Gassion (Caroline Faber), a street singer, catches the eye of nightclub owner Louis Leplee (Danny Cunningham). In reference to her slight frame he renames her Little Sparrow – ‘ Piaf’.
Pam Gems’s play is a warts and all examination of a flawed figure full of contradictions.Edith is haunted by class consciousness and loneliness. During the Second World War she was perceived as both a collaborator with the occupying forces and a supporter of the resistance. At the heart of the play is an analysis of the central enigma of Piaf’s life- how a technically untrained singer was able to perform heartbreaking interpretations of songs that moved even audiences who could not understand the language in which they were sung. Although Gems avoids romanticising Edith’s background the play is far from squalid being full of insight and wit. Asked if a lack of talent is a hindrance to a career Piaf replies it is fine if you are an agent.
Director Elizabeth Newman draws out the drama in an exciting and at times almost brutal production. The violent background from which Edith originated is starkly presented with vicious pimps and gangsters. This atmosphere contributes to the growing picture of Piaf as someone who sang simply because she had to – there was no other way to express her emotions. The set by Ciaran Bagnall is dominated by a striking art deco door through which characters disappear and which changes colour to blood red as an ominous reminder of the limited choices open to the young Edith. Bagnall’s stylish black and white lighting and the simple dark clothes of the cast create the sense of a film noir.
Like the writer Newman does not ignore the humour in the play. Kate Coogan offers a fine comic interpretation of a rôle that is potentially crude and depressing and Kieran Hill gives a show stopping comic vocal. There are moments of quiet beauty – Piaf’s theme song ‘ La Vie En Rose’ is sung intimately on a city street rather than in a big production number. The only jarring element in the play is the sheer range of accents on display with British working class jostling alongside French, German, Irish and American to the extent you begin to wonder where the play is set.
Caroline Faber gives a stunning vocal performance but to a certain extent that can be the result of emulating recordings. Her interpretation of the character is even more impressive. With a husky speaking voice and a coarse delivery she makes clear why people would be surprised to find Piaf was capable of such thought provoking singing. Faber’s body language – defensively hunched over like a whipped dog – is the perfect visualisation of a victim of abuse and shows how Piaf’s grim life experience helped to shape her ability to wring emotion from songs.