Writer: Pam Gems
Director: Adam Penford
Times have been hard for theatres everywhere, but slowly things are starting to get back towards some sort of normality – and despite still having a half-empty auditorium due to reduced capacity, Piaf provides a sparkling evening’s entertainment at Nottingham Playhouse.
The play gives us a whistle-stop tour of the life of the iconic singer, from her first break when she was spotted singing on the streets of Paris to her death at the tragically young age of 47. Trying to cram an eventful life into a two-hour play can create difficulties and so the piece is a little episodic, jumping from scene to scene and forward through time fairly quickly, with some sequences being pretty brief – Piaf’s work during the war is, for example, dealt with in just one very brief scene – but Frankie Bradshaw’s one-set design helps things to keep moving along nicely.
Among the competent cast of ten, there are some excellent performances. Sally Ann Triplett gives an outstanding performance as Piaf’s life-long friend Toine, and Laura Pitt-Pulford is a classic Marlene Dietrich, also playing a slightly flustered and brow-beaten – yet supportive – secretary, Madeleine. The play is, though, all about one woman and her music and here we have Jenna Russell in the title role. Russell’s acting performance is superb, taking us effortlessly and believably from her days as a 20-year-old street singer to fame and international tours, love affairs and marriage, and her early decline caused by drug use and leading to her death. This is a gritty portrayal of someone who clearly had a strong and down-to-earth character and who was not known to mince her words or hold back on the bad language.
Piaf is also about the music, of course, those classic Piaf songs that so many people remember growing up withL’Accordéoniste, La Vie en Rose, Non, Je ne Regrette Rien and many more. Delivered in French, Russell’s vocal is practically flawless. The decision has been made, though, to deliver a lot of them – at least in part – in English. According to the programme, this is to help the audience connect with the lyrics – an understandable motive as the lyrics are so often meaningful, a reflection of Piaf’s feelings and what was going on in her life at the time they were written. As expected, Russell sings them beautifully – though possibly too beautifully as she seems to come completely out of character for the numbers: sung in English but in character and this would make sense. As it is, for those in the audience who have grown up hearing these songs in French, it perhaps creates a slightly jarring experience that detracts from the joy of hearing the music again.
Overall, though, this just is a slight niggle on what is otherwise an excellent production.
Runs until 17 July 2021 and on tour