When you think of the great female singers of all time, some names instantly spring to mind. Judy, Barbara, Liza, Bette, etc. There is, of course one name missing from this list, that marvelous singer of chanson and torch ballads. I speak of none other than Édith Giovanna Gassion. You will know her better by her stage name Piaf which is also the name of the recently opened musical at the Charing Cross Theatre chronicling her life.
Starting in 1935, we first encounter a young Edith (Cameron Leigh) singing for Francs on a corner of the Pigalle area of Paris. Also seeing her for the first time is nightclub owner Louis Leplée (Kit Smith) who, despite her initial nervousness persuades Edith to leave the corner and sing in his club. Leplée was also responsible for helping Edith with her stage presence – he advised her to always wear black – and gave her the name that will stay with her forever – La Môme Piaf (Paris slang meaning “The Waif Sparrow” or “The Little Sparrow”). As Edith’s popularity raises, she moves away from her former life – sharing a flat with a putain by the name of Toine (Samantha Spurgin). Despite her success, Piaf’s life is no bed of roses. She was implicated in the murder of Leplée and after the Second World War, she had to appear before a Purge Panel accused of being a collaborator during the German occupation. As it turned out, whilst she was working in nightclubs, brothels and POW camps she was also doing valuable work for the Résistance. She also had problems throughout her later life with morphine and alcohol addiction and died at the age of forty seven, another star gone to heaven far too young.
Nobody could say that Piaf had a boring life and from the start of this production, Writer Pam Gems, doesn’t hold back in showing the reality of Piaf’s life – occasionally in very graphic detail. Whilst she sang like an angel, Edith appears to have had a laugh like Barbara Windsor and, let’s be frank, definitely came from the wrong side of the proverbial tracks. Her language and mannerisms are coarse to say the least and, I have to admit, this was one of the problems with the show for me. After a career spanning nearly thirty years that took her from the pavement to Carnegie Hall, you would have expected her to change, mature, have some of the rough edges smoothed out, but this never seems to happen. The other issue I had with the story was that because Piaf had such a packed life – things seemed to continually happen to her – the production had to move a breakneck speed in order to for everything in. The best example was the Second World War which seemed to start and then in a blink of an eye be over. If I’m really honest, the play itself didn’t entirely work for me and there were a few technical issues at the performance I attended. I thought the first act was OK but the second was really great and really delivered a superbly entertaining show.
So that’s the niggly bits of the story dealt with, let’s move on to the positives and I don’t think it is possible to heap enough praise on Cameron Leigh for her portrayal of Piaf. When performing, she really was the chantreuse. The voice, the mannerisms, every aspect of Cameron’s performance brought Edith to life in spectacular style. Because of its status as Piaf’s signature tune, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien” had to be spot on and Cameron didn’t disappoint as she gave a truly awesome performance of the iconic tune that, yet again, had this reviewer wiping back the tears. Cameron was backed up by a first rate ensemble cast who moved between roles effortlessly as the various stages of Edith’s life were chronicled. I was particularly impressed with Valerie Cutko’s portrayal of Marlene Dietrich and it was lovely to see the two ladies on stage together.
All in all, Piaf is a reasonable production, giving an intriguing insight in the life of France’s most famous female singer. As you would expect, it is the music that gives it life and makes everything worthwhile.
Review by Terry Eastham
Legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf was dubbed the “little sparrow”. Her life took her from the streets of Paris to Carnegie Hall in an extraordinary rise to fame. But it was to prove to be a whirlwind of success and tragedy. A life lived without regret, she died at the age of 47 in 1963. Piaf vividly captures the glamour and squalor, the rise and fall of the complex, fragile, and enigmatic performer, who continues to be remembered and revered today for her exceptional voice and extraordinary life.
Pam Gems’ play received its world premiere in 1978, performed by the Royal Shakespeare Company, and subsequently transferred to the West End and Broadway.
The cast of this production includes Cameron Leigh as Piaf, Valerie Cutko and Samantha Spurgin.
Director: Jari Laakso; Musical Arrangement and Supervision: Isaac McCullough; Movement Director: Katya Bourvis; Designer: Philippa Batt; Lighting Designer: Chris Randall.
Piaf is produced by Gillian Tan, Blackwinged Creatives, Steven M. Levy and Sean Sweeney.
Piaf by Pam Gems
Tue, 1st December 2015 to Sat, 9th January 2016
Charing Cross Theatre
London, WC2N 6NL