Writer: Pam Gems
Director: Paul Kerryson
Reviewer: Selwyn Knight[rating:4]
It is now fifty years since the death of Edith Piaf. ‘The Little Sparrow’ succumbed to liver cancer at the age of forty-seven after living a life so disreputable that the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Paris refused her a funeral mass. Nevertheless, this icon of France brought Paris’ centre to a standstill as over 100000 fans attended her funeral and lined the streets.
Pam Gems’ play presents vignettes from Piaf’s life, with each punctuated with some of her most famous songs: La Vie en Rose, Padam… Padam, and, of course, Non, je ne regrette rien. We first meet Piaf just as she is discovered singing in the street by club owner Louis Leplee. Piaf is living in a brothel with best friend Toine, with whom she frequently raises hell. She is now, and remains throughout the play, promiscuous and amoral. After Leplee’s murder by gangsters, in which Piaf is briefly under suspicion, she overcomes negative publicity with the help of her new agent/boyfriend, to remain popular as war breaks out. Accused of being a collaborator because she sings for German occupiers, the play suggests that in reality she supported the resistance. In any event, following the war, her popularity grows and she is befriended by Marlene Dietrich. In an attempt to help her to settle down, she is introduced to the married boxer, Marcel Cerdan. He becomes the love of her life only to die in an aeroplane crash on his way to see her. She discovers a succession of young male singers including Yves Montand and Charles Aznavour and takes a parade of young lovers, casting them aside once she feels she has no further use for them. One side effect of this is that she is involved in several car crashes and following her injuries becomes addicted to morphine. Through all of this she continues to sing powerfully, but with fragility, and from the heart. However, her addictions and selfishness lead her to into a downward spiral with its inevitable consequences.
So, Piaf is no angel. Frances Ruffelle’s depiction is of a woman alone seeking fulfilment but without the wherewithal to do this without destroying herself and those around her. She is a bag of contradictions, by turns brash demanding and vulgar but also childish and needy. She is depicted as acting quite despicably towards many who befriend her, casting them aside without warning, and this raw honesty maybe prevents us from fully engaging with her. But we are never far away from a topical recreation of a song from her repertoire. Ruffelle’s powerful voice and presence remind us of Piaf’s charisma and hold over her audience. Laura Pitt-Pulford plays Piaf’s friend and partner in crime, Toine. Toine’s rise from street walker to respectable housewife puts Piaf’s fall into focus for us. There are moments of lightness – Jason Denton’s portrayal of Yves Montand’s audition piece Deep in the Heart of Texas is particularly memorable. The ensemble is consistently strong throughout, with fine singing voices, Tiffany Graves’ Marlene Dietrich being a case in point.
One of Piaf’s trademarks was her black dress. In this production, the design, too, is largely monochrome: the mostly black set designed by Simon Scullion with harsh white lighting, designed by Arnim Fries, creating pools of impenetrable darkness, are accentuated by splashes of colour reinforcing the image we know so well.
Overall, this is a fine production telling a story of success and despair, of yearning and disappointment, painting Piaf as a complex, rather unpleasant and unloveable character, but which ultimately leaves us unmoved by her final illness and death.
Runs until 16 March 2013
Picture: Pamela Raith