Frances Ruffelle is one of those impressively versatile performers who has no problems shifting tickets for any of her shows, the Tony Award-winning actress here doing a three-night stint at the perfectly suited and highly intimate St James Studio.
Being the experienced hand she is, Ruffelle knows exactly how to tease and tickle an audience’s musical fancy from the off, appearing on stage clutching a white rose to her microphone, scattering petals over a few of her clearly devoted followers and even offering her glass of champers to one lucky recipient.
Glossing over the fact that some of her backing quartet of musicians are sporting flat caps and looking more like a colliery band than a chic French ensemble – clearly the wardrobe department was bereft of berets – this is a full-on, honest performance that intrigues and entertains in equal measures.
Given the Gallic theme, it isn’t surprising that Ruffelle’s set places the accent, literally, on all the charms of a city notorious for love, sophistication and emotional entanglements, including of course the obligatory homage to Edith Piaf.
What is surprising though is that in amongst all the almost tearful, highly charged material there is a cover of The Clash’s ‘Should I Stay Or Should I Go’. Lead singer Joe Strummer (RIP) would have been most amused that his raucous punk rock anthem was covered in such genteel confines and in front of some clearly bemused audience members whose idea of anarchy is probably not placing a coaster under a wine glass.
Another treat cut from an altogether different musical mould is a previously unheard song, which was cut from the score from Les Misérables (the show in which Ruffelle made her name), namely Schönberg’s original song for the character Eponine.
Devised by Matt Ryan and Ruffelle and produced by Danielle Tarento, at 90 minutes there’s a lot of ground and genres covered in this production, the very special guest on this particular night being Ruffelle’s daughter and rising pop starlet, Eliza Doolittle. In the event, Doolittle did a little less material than was maybe expected given her pre-show billing, but her version of ‘Chanson D’Amour’, a huge hit for archetypal middle of the road group Manhattan Transfer in the late 1970s, was beautifully delivered by Doolittle, perched on the edge of the stage, sporting a pair of big killer, sparkly heels and looking a million Francs.
There’s certainly a maverick quality to Ruffelle’s performance here, she’s quite scatty and joyously self-indulgent at times, but also sassy and seductive – and she’s not afraid to go off-message when chatting to her audience. That in itself adds an extra layer of charm other artists don’t offer. At one point she admits, that even after all the years she’s been performing, the walk from the dressing room to the stage is always a lonely and nerve-wracking affair for her. At this compact venue that walk is all of about 15 feet, but it’s that kind of small admission which makes this show a compelling insight into what makes Ruffelle tick – and on many different levels.
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Interview – Frances Ruffelle brings her one-woman show Paris Original to the St James Studio