Updated: Aug 3, 2021
Leeds Playhouse and Nottingham Playhouse Theatre Company
Courtyard Theatre, Leeds Playhouse
July 23 2021-August 7 2021; 2hr 20min
Portraying Piaf, the world’s greatest chanteuse, is fraught with difficulty and danger. Should you attempt to sing those distinctive and adored numbers or rely on recordings of ‘the little sparrow’ herself? How to present Edith’s speaking voice to an English audience? Whether to celebrate the icon or present the unvarnished version of the French singer’s story, complete with flaws and questionable character traits.
Both Pam Gems' original 1978 play and this Leeds Playhouse co-production take risks. The scale of the theatrical bravery makes the success of this glorious show all the sweeter. Those risks pay off.
Leeds’ Courtyard Theatre has been transformed into a smoky, stunningly-lit cabaret club complete with on-stage grand piano for the duration. The audience is thrown immediately into the story as Piaf, her best days long behind her, stumbles onto stage. Olivier Award-winning Jenna Russell only gives us a few bars of La Goualante du Pauvre Jean, but we instantly know we are in the safest of safe hands.
In fact, as the story rewinds back to early 1900s Paris, we get only brief bursts of singing as the short vignette scenes help us to build up a picture of Piaf’s incredible and tragic backstory. With poor direction and acting this treatment could feel stilted or cold. It never does here, which means when the fully-formed singer finally steps into the spotlight for L’Accordeoniste, the impact of the performance is breathtaking.
The show itself sticks to a fairly well-trodden path: the rise to stardom, the victims made en-route, followed by heartbreak and inevitable descent. But the talented ensemble cast, and some clever creative touches, help it to transcend the ordinary.
Piaf – both play and character – are blisteringly rude, with very strong language, sexual references and even on-stage urination. Yet none of it seems gratuitous. Instead we are presented with a warts-and-all portrayal of the working-class woman behind the voice that transcended class.
Director Adam Penford has given the leading characters cockney accents and included English lyrics in some of the songs to help the audience fully connect. Even a Welsh Charles Aznavour, perhaps the bravest choice, just about works. Every member of the creative team has clearly given their very best to support the cast. Special mention for both Jack Knowles’ evocative lighting design and Georgina Lamb’s movement direction. A boxing scene in which four cast members become the ring itself is an inventive example of acting choreography.
But Russell steals the show. Her Piaf visibly ages and weakens with the help of nothing more than acting ability. She is supported by a fabulous cast, including Laura Pitt-Pulford who gives a showstopping performance as Marlene Dietrich. Piaf’s loves and friendships may be only fleetingly covered but Sally Ann Triplett’s hilarious Toine is there throughout and their relationship is at the heart of the story.
Piaf is much more than a star vehicle for its leading lady, but the sight of a lonely Russell hobbling to the microphone, tears streaming down her face, will live long in the memory. Brave and brilliant.
Ticket info here