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 The Theatreguide.London Review

Donmar, then Vaudeville Theatre    2008-2009

This is one of those plays that rise or fall almost entirely on the strength of the central performance. And in this case the performance is more than powerful enough to carry the evening to a grand success.

Pam Gems' biography of the raw-nerved French singer Edith Piaf is at its core a rather formulaic and-then-she-sang race through the familiar rags-to-riches-to-addiction-and-decay story. But inevitably it is punctuated by a lot of classic Piaf songs, and the right balance of actor and singer can make it work.

The original RSC production of 1979 stressed the drama, with Jane Lapotaire capturing the singer's pain and neediness while her slight straining at the singing actually added to their dramatic quality. In1993 Peter Hall misguidedly transformed the play into a glitzy vehicle for Elaine Paige, who sang without strain but in her own voice, making little attempt to capture the character.

This time the balance is exactly right, with a strong singer who is also a strong actress. Elena Roger (She was Evita in the most recent revival) captures the character in both the spoken and singing sequences, and not only sings beautifully but is able (and willing) to modify her own voice to capture a close enough approximation of the Piaf sound to send shivers down your spine.

The one original touch of Gems' script is incorporating some of the songs into the story, so that, for example, Piaf sings Mon Legionnaire while giving aid and comfort to a Resistance worker during the War and the celebratory verse of Milord at victory.

The hymn Mon Dieu accompanies, without irony, the beginning of a new love affair, while a duet to La Vie en Rose cements the friendship of Piaf and Marlene Dietrich. (Other familiar figures that pop up include protege-lovers Yves Montand and Charles Aznevour)

While the play is in English, using British class accents to differentiate the French classes, most of the songs are in French, adding to the ghostly sense of hearing echoes of Piaf in Rogers' sing-acting. One exception is the slightly banal English version of Les Trois Cloches, representing her American tours.

Director Jamie Lloyd sometimes moves things around a bit too frantically, and in her oversized topcoat the diminutive Piaf sometimes looks a bit like Little Orphan Annie.

I suspect that there has been some reassigning of supporting roles and perhaps some rewriting - I remember the role of Piaf's pal Toine being larger, though here Lorraine Bruce has very little to do, and I have the vague sense that one actor played all the lovers, here spread out among the cast, so that only Katherine Kingsley, doubling Dietrich and Piaf's loyal secretary, has time to register.

Don't come here for a biography of Piaf, because you won't learn much more than you already know. Come for a moving evocation of the spirit of Piaf, a sometimes eerie capturing of her voice, and a magnetic singing and acting performance by Elena Roger.

Gerald Berkowitz

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Review of  Piaf - Donmar Warehouse Theatre 2008