I have been waiting months to see this show which was originally scheduled for May 2020 but was postponed for some reason. No disrespect to the other Covid casualties but I think that this was the one I was looking forward to seeing the most as, although not an expert, I am fascinated by the pre- and post-war French cabaret style songs, I don’t know of any other music so evocative of a place and time.
Spoiler alert! Edith Piaf died on 10th October, 1963. I had just turned 14 and so remember her later performances which were striking as she was such a small, thin, frail woman but with a voice as strong as anyone I had ever heard. For some time before she died she weighed less than 5 stones. We ‘did’ French at school so a lesson was devoted to her and I couldn’t believe the life she had led. In later years I realised that the biography we were taught was very much watered down as I don’t think that the teacher deemed it worth the risk of losing his job by discussing a string of sexual encounters with men of all proclivities and stints working in brothels, with a class of pubescent boys cultivating rampant hormones. Bear in mind that homosexuality was still illegal in 1963, and would be for a further four years.
Anyway, after the Covid protocols at the door, which I find to be very reassuring, I took my seat, appropriately distanced from those around me – note to self, add deodorant to shopping list. I was in the normal stalls seats but the front row had been altered and consisted of a series of small round tables complete with white napery making it look like an intimate night club. This effect was enhanced by the addition of a small catwalk from the stage where a single retro microphone on a stand was placed in front of the closed curtains. The houselights dimmed and a brashly dressed MC strode to the mic to introduce ‘Your own Edith Piaf’ and on walked Jenna Russell to begin her first performance as the legend. That is where I will leave it because I really don’t want to spoil the opening.
The story is told using the same set throughout with just an odd piece of furniture, usually a bed, wheeled on and off. The back of the stage is a collection of neon signs from the venues where the action takes place and are illuminated accordingly.
If I thought that the version of Piaf’s life story as told by my French teacher had been watered down then this one has gone in the polar opposite direction. Expletives were flying about like a swarm of locust and references to various body parts and their functions filled the small void between. Please don’t get me wrong, I am not complaining here, in fact it added to the caricature reality of the piece. I realise that that was an oxymoron but it is the only way I could think of putting it. Had the story been presented as a straight play, it is so bleak that we would have been ready to join the star in Pierre La Chaise Cemetery before the interval, so the essence of the situations had to be conveyed in a more light-hearted way.
Being abandoned at birth by her mother and then sent to, and employed in, her paternal grandmother’s brothel as a young child, giving birth to a daughter at 17, having her taken away, later learning that she had only lived for 2 years, being arrested on suspicion of murder, reviled as a Nazi collaborator, surviving three near fatal car crashes, bedding a string of lovers, one of whom was killed, and an addiction to booze and drugs ending in kidney failure at the age of 47 would hardly have made for a jolly night of the theatre otherwise.
The other thing which hit me was that everyone was speaking in broad cockney, except for the toffs who utilised RP. This had me puzzled for a few minutes until I realised that, in order to anglicise the piece they had to employ an appropriate accent, and, as Belleville, the suburb of the French capital where Piaf was born and raised, was working class, then the contemporary working class area of the English capital would be a good one to use.
Most of the cast played multiple roles except for Samuel James as Bruno the MC and her some time agent, Sally Anne Triplett who was Toine, Piaf’s friend and companion throughout the days before fame called, and Jenna Russell who was superb as Piaf. It is difficult when watching a piece, whether it be a play, film or TV programme, about a real person, not to look upon it as a documentary, especially if the subject is easily accessible on various media platforms or in one’s memory, but Ms Russell pulled it off a treat. She obviously tips the scales at more than 5 stones – thank goodness – but her movement and stance at the microphone had us forget about that aspect altogether. I only found that it made a difference in the scenes with her lover, the boxer, Marcel Cerdan, played by Louis Gaunt who also took the part of her last husband Theo Sarapo. Cerdan was the ex-middleweight champion of the world and so a big beefy guy who accentuated Piaf’s slight stature in the photographs of them. As they spent most of their time together in the show in bed, it wasn’t such a big deal. Jenna Russell has a wonderful voice which is a little softer round the edges than Piaf’s hard, guttural sound but that is just an observation rather than a quibble. The songs were delivered superbly well.
The set pieces were very good and the choreography, especially in the boxing scene with a makeshift ring comprising a rope held by the other performers, worked really well.
I have mentioned the cockney accents but one thing which left me totally baffled was that, as well as playing the accordion and the character Raymond, Matthew Woodyatt utilised a Welsh accent when portraying the French Armenian singer Charles Aznavour. He is a lot taller and stockier than the diminutive performer which made it a double surprise when it became apparent who he was playing. I have googled Armenia and can find no reference to its being known as The Land of Song or having a leek, dragon or daffodil as its national emblem. Maybe it is where the headquarters of Go Compare are based.
Laura Pitt-Pulford played the flute and took the parts of Madeleine and Marlene Dietrich with Garry Robson as Louis Leplée and Vaimber. Finally Zheng Xi Yong took the parts of Lucien and Yves – that is Yves Montand the singer and film star who was another notch on Piaf’s bedpost.
There are two other people I would like to mention; firstly there is Gareth Valentine who played Pascale Montpellier but also did the musical arrangements and sat at the piano throughout the evening accompanying performers. Finally, and it is a tragedy that she is not mentioned in any of the credits, there was the woman who, dressed in black and standing in front of a black background so as not to distract from the main performance, translated the show into BSL. I am amazed by her ability to sign some of the words and expressions in the more colourful parts of the dialogue and still keep her dignity, let alone look as though it was water off a duck’s back. Whoever you are, you are a star.
Piaf was well worth the wait as it is a very enjoyable production and a great way to return to the theatre post-lockdown. The songs, which are part of the narrative, are sung half and half in French and English so you can follow the plot easily enough.
Unsurprisingly the evening ended with Jenna Russell singing Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien which was one of the last songs she recorded and has become her signature tune although it is obvious that there was one huge regret in her life, and that was persuading her lover, Marcel Cerdan, to take an earlier plane than he had planned from Paris to New York to meet her.
Piaf is a joint production between Leeds Playhouse and Nottingham Playhouse. It was written By Pam Gems and directed by Adam Penford. As a consequence of Covid there are no longer printed programmes in the theatre but if you follow the link below you will see that you can download a copy for more details of those involved.
Piaf runs at Leeds Playhouse until 7th August and tickets are available by clicking on the photograph below
All photographs by Marc Brenner