Piaf – September 2008


By Pam Gems

Directed by Jamie Lloyd

Venue: Donmar Warehouse

Date: Wednesday 3rd September 2008

The set was very simple, as often happens at the Donmar. An elaborately carved rectangular stone arch framed the very back of the stage, while the back wall looked like it belonged in one of those underground tunnels that Don Wildman is always investigating on Cities of the Underworld. It was dark, with an unfinished texture, and just the word ‘Piaf’ in faint lettering running down the lower right hand side. The floor had cobbles and rough concrete to match.

We were in the back row again(!) – must book earlier next time – so we were actually feet away from the action, instead of inches! Never mind, this didn’t spoil our enjoyment of the play. What did spoil it a bit was the way a perfectly good bio-drama, with songs (she was famous for her singing after all) had been edited down to a Greatest Hits compilation, with a few bits of dialogue tying it together. [And I read in the play text that it was the author herself who did this!]

To be fair, the performance of Elena Roger as Piaf was excellent. She aged herself tremendously over the course of the play, with only a little help from makeup and wigs. Her singing voice was powerful and could easily tackle Piaf’s songs, and she was also small, which helped the impersonation. The rest of the cast also sang well, and we know them to be good actors from past experience, but with so little for any of them to do this time around, you’d be forgiven for thinking that neither the author nor the director had any of our confidence in them.

I liked the finale very much. From the point when her old mate Toine turned up, with Piaf looking at death’s door, to the closing chords of ‘Je ne regrette rein’, the emotional impact that had been conspicuously absent so far suddenly hit me, and as the music for her final song started up, my tears began to flow. It was enough to leave me feeling reasonably happy with the production, but I still don’t know why they had to cut out so much good stuff. I particularly missed Piaf and Toine’s discussion of crabs (the genital variety).

In fact, apart from a couple of good jokes, the humour had largely disappeared. This was a determinedly bleak view of a woman who had faced many tough times, and proved herself to be even tougher. She drank like a fish and got hooked on drugs after one of her car accidents – she would let reckless young men drive her about. Many of the men in her life just used her as a money machine, and she had a habit of cutting herself off from anyone who really cared for her. Even so, there was still a spirit there that could fight back against the odds, and a talent that could captivate thousands. Where was that spirit today? I felt the whole production had been made deliberately unsentimental, with very little warmth, and practically no time to get to know the characters and relate to them. This is why it took till nearly the end of the performance for me to feel engaged with it. It didn’t help that the dialogue was often too rushed for me to make it out, even when it was in English, and the songs, though sung very well, didn’t move me much at all.

Having said all that, it obviously pleased a lot of Piaf fans, with several standing at the end, and I did enjoy it well enough to give it 5/10. I wouldn’t go out of my way to see this again though, unless it’s closer to the original version, which we saw many years ago and enjoyed better than this.

P.S. I caught up with some reports of Pam Gems’ comments. Apparently she was adding in new information about Piaf’s relationships and her activities during the war that weren’t available last time. Doesn’t change my opinion, but interesting all the same.

© 2008 Sheila Evans at ilovetheatre.me

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