Piaf – Charing Cross Theatre

Piaf 2 Cameron Leigh as Edith Piaf Photo Gabriel Szalontai

Cameron Leigh in Piaf at the Charing Cross Theatre, London. Picture: Gabriel Szalontai

Piaf continues at the Charing Cross Theatre, London until 2 January 2016.

Star rating: two stars ★ ★ ✩ ✩ ✩

This month sees the centenary of Edith Piaf’s birth. Born Edith Gassion, the name by which she is best known derives from her nickname of ‘La Môme Piaf’ or ‘The Little Sparrow’. The diminutive singer’s life and performances have been dramatised in Pam Gems’ play with songs, first performed by the RSC in 1978, and revived to much acclaim by the Donmar Warehouse in 2008 with Elena Roger in the title role.

In this Charing Cross Theatre production, Cameron Leigh takes on the impersonation duties. And when she is in the centre stage in spotlight performing the chanteuse’s iconic numbers, it is a spot-on performance. The little sparrow’s querulous tones and downtrodden resilience come shining through in these moments. The band of player-actors, lead by musical director Mal Hall, works well, as does Chris Randall’s lighting design, which is impressive throughout, its apparent simplicity elevating the performance and giving the Charing Cross Theatre a treat that is well suited to its unique space.

Unfortunately, it is when the music stops and the play resumes that things start to fall apart. Eager to show that Piaf came from an uncultured background, Gems’ script has her effing and blinding throughout – but which is then supplemented by Leigh giving her a broad accent straight from the East End of London. More Cockney sparrow than La Môme Piaf, it is a mystifying portrayal that puts one in mind of an early Barbara Windsor in a Carry On spoof of Piaf’s life. Not only does it overshadow Gems’ own dialogue, which is already unsubtle about the differences in social standing between Piaf and the wealthy patrons of the clubs she performs in, it also detracts from Leigh’s singing performances, which are sung in a believably French accent.

Lack of subtlety is very much this play’s watchword, with or without director Jari Laakso’s attempt to stamp out any sense of nuance. Piaf’s life is portrayed as a series of scenes between her and a bewildering array of character ciphers. At no point is the audience afforded any time to invest in the supporting characters’ lives, and so the chances of engaging with its star’s are diminished also. Nowhere is this more in evidence than with the supposed love of her life, boxer Marcel. No sooner is she tempted with the idea that she may at last be happy than he is killed in an air crash – but his being on stage for so short a time means the audience cares little, and Piaf’s subsequent depression becomes harder to empathise with.

Of the other supporting characters, Valerie Cutko’s Marlene Dietrich is certainly striking, but once more limited by Gems’ inability to retain interest in any character for very long. Only Piaf’s occasional best friend Toine (Samantha Spurgin), who comes and goes throughout, has the semblance of a narrative of her own – but even that gets lost in this disappointing production.

Scott Matthewman

Tickets for Piaf are available here: www.musicaltheatrereview.entstix.com/tickets/piaf

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