The supporting cast take on multiple roles and many do a good job creating vignettes.
Italia Conti Ensemble starts off disadvantaged. Described variously by critics as ‘frail’ (New York Times) and ‘pallid’ (The Guardian), Pam Gems’ play is anything but a gem. It also omits many of the most popular songs and paints Piaf in a uniformly unflattering manner.
An ageing Piaf scurries around the characters frozen in mid-movement, looking up and down at the figures who influenced her. As they come to life, her story begins to unfold. That Piaf fades into the background and another takes over.
Let’s freeze there. Director Sue Colgrave has decided to cast three Piafs to cover three stages of her life. Shannon Giles, Nicola Agada and Théa Carter play the early years, world success and the final years respectively. In some circumstances, such a device might work – as in the 2007 Piaf biopic La Vie En Rose – but here it destroys any sense of continuity and imposes three completely different styles and voices on the music.
In the world success phase, there is nothing that bears any resemblance or has anything to do with Piaf. The only difference between the early portrayal and the final years is a grey wig and some ageing makeup. Carter does make her appear credible in terms of looks and some mannerisms; when she is dying, though, she still seems to have youthful energy and agility of movement. For the most part, she captures her sound in some songs, but there is no consistency between her speaking and singing voices.
As we flit from one affair to another in her life, alcohol and drugs take over and there is nothing anyone can do to help her out of this downward spiral. The supporting cast take on multiple roles and many do a good job creating vignettes in a heavily dissected play which covers a lifetime.
Those of a superstitious persuasion might suspect that a cast of thirteen would not be a good omen and in this instance they would be right. Predictably it ends with Piaf’s signature chanson. Given her life it’s unlikely that she could honestly say, 'Non, je ne regrette rien'; the same will probably be true for Italia Conti Ensemble.