Dangerous addictions to young men, alcohol and painkillers paint a tragic portrait of one of France’s national treasures. Piaf begins its UK tour at Curve and despite a strong cast, many well executed and well loved songs the play itself falls flat.
Frances Ruffelle won a Tony award for her portrayal of Eponine in the original West End and Broadway productions of Les Miserables. Her diminutive stature, strong stage presence and chocolat noir of a voice are now also perfect for the eponymous role of Edith Piaf. Wearing Piaf’s trademark black dress from her teenage years as a Parisian street singer up to her death in 1963 aged 47, only her hair and shoes change occasionally to chart her progress from wild street urchin to star to death from liver cancer. Ruffelle captures Piaf’s distinctive mannerisms and her ability to sing from the heart, to “sing the truth, then they’ll believe you.”
The cast, many of whom have just finished appearances in Curve’s Hello, Dolly, did their best with the script. The first act particularly is hard to follow with short vignettes giving teasing glimpses of the troubled star’s discovery on the streets of Paris to her rise to fame, more in the style of a docudrama than a musical play. Little space is given to develop character or motive, sometimes not even enough to catch name or purpose – her long term friendship with Toine (Laura Pitt-Pulford) was close yet did not convince. After abandonment by her parents, the death of her own child and a passion for younger men, Piaf just wanted to be loved but it seemed more like heartlessness despite Ruffelle’s best efforts.
Playwright Pam Gems’ 1978 play has Piaf as a vulgar woman with equivalent language and behaviour, and Director Paul Kerryson continues this with the French characters as cockney sparrows, reflecting the argot underworld language of the street. Marlene Dietrich, two Nazi officers and Piaf’s Greek husband Theo Sarapo speak in ‘ze accents’. Ruffelle also sang some songs in French, some in English or a combination of both, a black drape swishing across the stage to herald each number and a single microphone evoking a cabaret feel. Her interactions with the onstage band of piano, drums and accordion were nice touches and use of minimal props effective for the many scene changes. An angular and predominantly black set by Simon Scullion matched the mood and lighting by Arnim Freiss suitably atmospheric.
Piaf’s friend Rina Ketty said “Her songs expressed all she had suffered in childhood,” with the singer still fondly remembered for her emotional delivery. Gems’ script is a two dimensional series of snapshots rather than examining Piaf’s motives.
Overall, Ruffelle’s mastery of the emotion and power of Piaf’s songs made this show and left me wanting to hear more of her music rather than trying to piece together her clearly painful life.
Piaf continues at Leicester’s Curve theatre until March 16. For tickets go to www.curveonline.co.uk or call the box office on 0116 242 3595.