Piaf

Celebrating the 100th anniversary of the iconic French singer Pam Gem’s 1978 musical Piaf returns to the West End. Telling the story of her tragic life from Parisian street singer to global superstar the play is sadly stripped of its emotional power by consistent overacting and a relentlessly fast pace.

Cameron Leigh has a stunningly powerful voice, more than a match for the huge belting numbers from Piaf’s oeuvre. However she starts so big she has nowhere to go and the singing sequences feel repetitive well before the close of the first act.

Cameron Leigh has a stunningly powerful voice, more than a match for the huge belting numbers from Piaf’s oeuvre. However she starts so big she has nowhere to go and the singing sequences feel repetitive well before the close of the first act. She has none of Piaf’s physical frailty as so wonderfully portrayed by Marian Cotillard in the 2007 film La Vie en Rose but instead plays up her famous coarseness to such an extent that it overshadows much of her other characteristics.

The atmosphere of a Parisian concert hall is well created by Philippa Batt using scallop shell floor lights and a set of cabaret style tables in the front row. Gem’s dialogue however is far too vague with key names and chronology often skipped over and a huge ensemble cast rip through scene after scene at such a romping pace there is no chance to appreciate the significance of all the action. The result is that the audience is unable to emotionally invest in the characters before the situations change. It is true that Piaf surrounded herself with a great many lovers but in this retelling the hordes of generically good looking men playing multiple parts becomes so confusing it is tempting to give up trying to separate their personalities.

The female characters, particularly Valerie Cutko’s other worldly portrayal of Marlene Dietrich, are far more rounded. Partly this is because Piaf objectified her lovers and cast them off when she was bored but there is still a spark missing from the male performances that make them uninteresting to watch.

The deeper issue is that Leigh hams up Piaf into such a caricature that we cannot take her seriously. Her physicality is funny but not realistic. She adopts a cockney accent to get away from having to fake a French one but this merely adds to the sense of unreality and the longer the play goes on the more grating her mannerisms become. Leigh is an incredible singer but her inability to portray the true nuances and vulnerability of Piaf let her, and this production, down. 

Reviews by Lettie Mckie

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The Blurb

Legendary French chanteuse Edith Piaf was dubbed the “little sparrow”. Her life took her from the streets of Paris to Carnegie Hall in an extraordinary rise to fame. But it was to prove to be a whirlwind of success and tragedy. A life lived without regret, she died at the age of 47 in 1963. Piaf vividly captures the glamour and squalor, the rise and fall of the complex, fragile, and enigmatic performer, who continues to be remembered and revered today for her exceptional voice and extraordinary life.

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