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A CurtainUp London London Review

Piaf reopens in the West End
The much-deserved critical acclaim which Elena Roger won for her performance as Edith Piaf, meant that a West End reopening was both thoroughly justified and almost inevitable. For a limited 14 week season at the Vaudeville theatre therefore, London audiences have another chance to catch the Donmar Warehouse production of Pam Gemsí 1978 play.

From gutsy street urchin to world-famous chanteuse, Elena Rogerís performance is truly remarkable. With transformative mimicry, she captures Piafís tomboyish uncouthness of youth, through to the aged iconís fragile loneliness and fragmented health. This is not to mention Rogerís amazing voice with timbre, depth and sheer raw vigour uncannily recreating Piafís tones.

Although Pam Gemsí play was reworked for the Donmar production and I suspect compressed quite considerably, it still suffers from a looseness of construction. This lack of thematic tightness and neatness is partly due to the necessarily sprawling nature of messy real-life biography. Also, although a musical, the songs are almost exclusively a representation of performances occurring within the narrative, which of course does not help the plotís coherent impetus.

Nevertheless, Jamie Lloydís direction focuses on the strengths of the cast and production and does much to overrule the playís problematic elements. Contemporary and impressionistic, the direction is intelligent and innovative without being ostentatious. Lloyd also effectively navigates the time compression of the biographical form with clever use of vignettes and fluid scene changes. Moreover, the Vaudevilleís traditional proscenium arch works well for this inherently stage-based play, whilst the voices of the ten-strong ensemble and the productionís energy are more than strong enough to fill the larger auditorium. —Charlotte Loveridge

West End Production Notes for Piaf
Starring: Elena Roger
With: Shane Attwooll, Michael Hadley, Lorraine Bruce, Steve John Shepherd, Luke Evans, Taylor James, Phillip Browne, Owen Sharpe, Katherine Kingsley
Band: Dan Jackson, Marcus Tilt
Running Time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0870 040 0084
Booking to 24th January 2009
Reviewed by Charlotte Loveridge on 21st October 2008 performance at the Vaudeville Theatre, 404 The Strand, London, WC2R 0NH (Tube: Charing Cross)

The original review by Lizzie Loveridge

Who wants to see some little c*** looking like a war widow when they can have Doris Day?— Edith Piaf about her tour of the USA
Elena Roger as Edith Piaf
(Photo: Johan Persson )
We knew she was remarkable when we saw her play Eva Peron in the London revival of Evita and in the production of Pam Gems' play Piaf at the Donmar Warehouse, Elena Roger again makes a part her own. Playing the diminutive French songstress with the enormous voice, she could not be better cast.

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.

Written by Pam Gems
Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Starring: Elena Roger
With: Shane Attwooll, Michael Hadley, Lorraine Bruce, Steve John Shepherd, Luke Evans, Leon Lopez, Phillip Browne, Stuart Neal, Katherine Kingsley
Band: Nigel Lilley, Marcus Tilt
Design: Soutra Gilmour
Lighting: Neil Austin
Sound: Christopher Shutt
Original Composition: Ben and Max Ringham
Musical Director: Nigel Lilley
Running time: One hour 30 minutes without an interval
Box Office: 0870 060 6624
Booking to 20th September 2008—transfers to Vaudeville season for additional 14 weeks.
Reviewed by Lizzie Loveridge based on 16th August 2008 performance at the Donmar Warehouse, Earlham Street, London WC2 (Tube: Covent Garden)
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