In 1963, at merely 47 years old, she passed away. Despite the brevity of her life and its premature end, Parisian chanteuse Edith Piaf was already established as a titan of French song; a singer who transcended her art-form to represent something bigger. ‘The Little Sparrow’ who became an icon of French culture both at home and abroad.
The production at central London’s Bridewell Theatre – and entitled, simply, Piaf – is a reconstitution of a 1978 work by the late British playwright Pam Gems. Presented in 2015 to mark the centenary of Edith Piaf’s birth, it proves to be a robust piece of musical theatre that eschews candy coated mawkish sentimentality by painting the lows just as starkly as the highs are finely glossed.
The sad reality of our subject is that she never truly escaped the dire circumstances of her earliest days and her life was marked throughout by tragic events. But, discovered singing on the streets of Paris by a nightclub owner, Louis Leplee, she was lifted to the bright lights of the stage where she remained a feral talent greeted with fame and fortune. Openly salacious, naughtily rapacious (when it came to men, anyway), and a volcano of unpredictability, she was as quick to laugh as she was to scorn.
Figuratively filling the rather large shoes of Edith Piaf is Cameron Leigh. And it is hard to think that she wasn’t the fortuitous construct of some sort of casting agent’s science lab. Not only does she provide an uncanny imitation of her vocal timbre, she also physically represents the slightness of Piaf’s frame and conjures the full fire of her character. It is a tour-de-force performance that encompasses the electric brashness of the younger Piaf and the cantankerous spittle and bile of the elder songstress as she struggled to perform whilst battling cancer.
Mention must go to the direction afforded by Jari Laakso, which utilises the theatre space with imagination, and the musicians who cook up a quiet storm that is infectious, affectionate and emotive. Further, assisting Cameron Leigh is an able cast who play some of the key characters of her life, including Marlene Dietrich (Valerie Cutko) and prostitute Toine (Samantha Spurgin).
Edith Piaf’s songbook traced the ups and downs of her experiences, and her finest moments are presented here; from the sparky chutzpah of ‘Milord’, to the beautifully plaintive ‘La Vie En Rose’ and, of course, her indelible signature song ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’. Whilst we don’t quite cover the pre-1935 Piaf – meaning that we don’t voyage down her traumatic childhood and the death of her daughter – we do tackle most of the things that befell her post-fame.
All in all, this is a thoroughly entertaining production that elicits smiles and sadness in more or less equal measure, just as the story demands. Stunning performances reside within it, and the whole enterprise impresses to the extent that you will want to grab the lapels of your nearest and dearest to command them to buy a ticket.
Review by Greg Wetherall
Reviving Édith Piaf’s Story on the Centenary of her Birth
From the streets of Paris to Carnegie Hall, an extraordinary rise to fame. A whirlwind of success and tragedy. A life without regrets.
On the centenary of Édith Piaf’s birth, her unique voice and incredible story return to the London stage with Pam Gems’ PIAF. Jari Laakso directs a heartfelt new version at the Bridewell Theatre, of the beloved French icon’s turbulent journey from destitute street singer to global phenomenon.
Few people have glimpsed the darkness and pain under the glitter of Piaf’s stardom. A tumultuous life of addiction, lovers, and deaths, held together by a burning passion for the stage, the story of the “Little Sparrow” gives us a searing account of the power and poison of fame.
Dates: 30th October – 14th November, 2015
Monday to Saturday 7.30pm, Saturday Matinee 2.30pm, no Sunday performances.
Bride Lane, Fleet Street, EC4Y 8EQ,
Written by Pam Gems
PIAF © Pam Gems 1979
Musical Director – Isaac McCullough
Movement Director – Katya Bourvis
Designer – Philippa Batt
Lighting Designer – Chris Randall
Assistant Musical Director – Max Gallagher
Stage Manager – Emma SmithÉdith Piaf – Cameron Leigh
Toine – Samantha Spurgin
Marlene Dietrich – Valerie Cutko
Male Ensemble – Kit Smith, Mal Hall, Max Gallagher, Maxime Yelle
Produced by Gillian Tan in association with Blackwinged Creatives
Originally Produced by PINGNG Productions at the Brighton Fringe