It’s not easy to warm to Piaf – the person or her story, as related in Pam Gems’ award-winning musical play.
The legendary French balladeer’s short life supplies the template for many other tragic music stars whose lives ended too soon.
Excess, exploitation and narcissism chiefly feature in the stage biography of the woman nicknamed Little Sparrow, and Gems does not stint on portraying any of these. But she only really pecks at the full story.
Fortunately, at the emotional heart of her play are the songs themselves and Caroline Faber grabs them with a lusty and emotional power, coupled with that warbling inflection to her voice and hand-wringing performance, that made Piaf a concert performer as much as a singer.
But, pardon the French, did she really live her off-stage life amidst a welter of language that would make a matelot faint? The repeated profanity gets a little wearing. And Gems seems almost apologetic to introduce walk-on characters like Dietrich, Montand and Aznavour to her version of events. An outline knowledge of Piaf’s story will help most audiences.
Director Elizabeth Newman stages the early years episodes of the first act like a series of panels from a graphic novel, aided considerably by the strong contrast spotlights of Ciaran Bagnall’s design. He’s also responsible for the elegant art deco staircase which gives the production a classy focal point.
The second act almost forgets itself in a more traditional style of narrative which looks a little loose and is certainly too long.
It’s just about worth the wait however for the final rendition of Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, apparently from beyond the grave. Faber’s performance alone convinces you that Piaf really did feel she had nothing to be sorry for.
The play runs until June 15.
by David Upton