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A CurtainUp London Review
The original review by Lizzie Loveridge
Pam Gems has rewritten parts of her 1978 play about the iconic "Little Sparrow" who died at 47 after the most eventful and often tragic life. Those who saw last year's film La Vie En Rose would have been given a full picture of Piaf's roller coaster life story. The play in just ninety minutes cannot provide all the detail but what it lacks in biography this production makes up for in live performance. Elena Roger's delivery of the classic Piaf songs is moving, powerful and achieves an authenticity that we could not have dared hope for.
The Donmar stage has been given a crumbling plasterwork proscenium arch of a Parisian stage and a dark cobblestone floor. We see Piaf collapsing onstage and in a turmoil of choreography she is spun and turned and undressed and dressed, backwards to the point where the play can start. She is singing on a street corner in Paris in between clients who have come for sexual favours rather than to hear her sing. Her friend and companion is fellow sex worker Toine (Lorraine Bruce) who is as capacious as Piaf is petite. Piaf is talent spotted by a night club owner Louis Leplée (Michael Hadley) for her powerful voice. Leplée is later found murdered and Piaf is under suspicion. Although later cleared by the police, Pam Gems implies that Piaf has told the robbers where M. Leplée keeps his cash box.
The play shows another side of Edith Piaf as she sings "Mon Ménage a Moi" about how her lover is her world, the words illustrating her latest love affair. The Second World War comes and Piaf flirts with the Germans and helps the Résistance and the song is "Mon Legionnaire" for French soldiers everywhere!
Elena Roger sings all the songs in their original French apart from "The Hymn to Love" which Piaf also sung in English and to which I saw grown men cry in the theatre that day. This song was written by Piaf as a tribute to her lover, boxer Marcel Cerdan (Phillip Browne) who was tragically killed in an air crash.
A succession of seven attractive men act as escorts to the fated diva as Pam Gems gives us a rapid insight into Piaf's troubled and eventful love life. Another female actor Katherine Kingsley plays nursemaid, secretary and Marlene Dietrich, who joins Piaf to sing "La Vie en Rose". When she travels to America where her tour is not well received Dietrich acts a mentor.
Jamie Lloyd's production is simply staged and he lets everything revolve around his star with a series of biographical snap shots. For my money the play does not stand up to the 2007 film in terms of narrative, but the performance of Elena Roger is phenomenal and fully deserving of the standing ovation she receives from almost all of the audience. From her miniature frame she exudes a determination which sees Piaf performing even after a second, bad car accident. After the hospital treatment, there is the legacy of her addiction to pain killing injections and booze. As she ages, her hair thins under the surface perm.
Elena Roger, like Piaf, must be under 5 feet but she has a voice with such emotional strength and volume that it is quite uncanny. Wearing her typical black crepe frock, she expresses her songs with uninhibited passion. Her feet apart in a gutsy stance, her eyes interpreting the meaning of the paroles, her hands extended, she is a tiny figure in full command of a huge stage.
Retold by Tina Packer of Shakespeare & Co.
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