Writer: Pam Gems
Director: Adam Penford
Musical Director: Gareth Valentine
Edith Piaf was one of the most iconic singers of the twentieth century. Her life and career have been the subject of many biographies and an Oscar-winning film was made in 2007. Here on stage she is brought memorably to life with one of the West End’s leading performers, Jenna Russell, in the lead role.
Piaf’s life story is truly extraordinary. Her parents worked in a circus but Edith was passed off to family and was actually brought up in a brothel. As a child she went blind for some time and throughout her life she battled physical illness, which led to terrible drug and alcohol addiction. She was discovered singing on street corners and during her career she moved through a succession of different managers who moulded her. She became the biggest selling female artist in the world and sang mainly in French. Her voice was very authentic and people said that when she sang it reminded them of Parisian streets. Like so many other talented artists who struggled in their childhood before becoming famous, she died tragically young at only 47 and we can only wonder what might have been.
Russell deserves every accolade that will surely come her way. She gives an astonishing performance throughout and has a huge acting and singing role, successfully holding the whole thing together. It is her singing voice that is especially outstanding, performing all the iconic songs with raw emotional power. Fans of Piaf will not be disappointed by her rendition of such favourites as Milord, La Vie en Rose and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.
Piaf’s love life was certainly busy to say the least and she seemed to both need men and discard them in equal measure. Underneath it all there is a deep sadness and poignancy which probably has its roots in her troubled childhood and relationship with her father. There was also a disproportionate amount of tragic loss in her life which adversely affected her throughout.
Any portrayal of Piaf has to decide what voice to use. The film version was made in French so no problem there. Here the decision has been made to make Piaf sound like a cockney presumably to transpose her background in the streets and brothels of Paris to the east end of London. The accompanying colourful language with its liberal use of expletives does sometimes seem more Eastenders than Montmartre. This is a shame, and whilst the thinking behind it is understandable, the resulting effect can be a little disconcerting.
Two other cast members deserve mention: Sally Ann Triplett as Toine and Laura Pitt-Pulford as Marlene Dietrich complete a trio of strong female performances. The rest of the Company are perfectly fine helping to bring Piaf’s story to life, and the set is well designed by Frankie Bradshaw making full use of the stage both behind and in front of the curtain.
Runs until Saturday 7th August 2021