Saturday 21st April 2018 at York Theatre Royal.
Written by Steve Trafford and devised by Annie Castledine, Steve Trafford and Elizabeth Mansfield, Hymn to Love – Homage to Piaf is a ninety minute tribute to the talent of Edith Piaf – a woman considered small in stature but never in character or voice. It’s not a tribute in the traditional sense; this isn’t an act which simply performs the songs of a legend while attempting to both imitate the original and combine an original spin on the sounds. It’s a tribute in that it delivers many of Piaf’s most famous songs, but Elizabeth Mansfield does not sound at all like Piaf, even though she delivers the songs with great feeling. The marketing suggests a performance of Piaf’s life intertwined with songs from her career. Key moments of her life are depicted via projections announcing dates and places, with videos and images of Piaf providing a backdrop to Mansfield’s performances of the songs. Mansfield works in role as Piaf, narrating key events of her life and depicting the confusion of her later years as she relives the torture of the love of her life dying, but there’s very little to see when it comes to Mansfield portraying Piaf as a solid, rounded character. The overall impression is of Mansfield lovingly performing her favourite Edith Piaf songs while nodding at the notion of a narrative in role.Director Damian Cruden, Sound Designer Yvonne Gilbert and Lighting Andrew J Lindsay are all singing from the same hymn sheet with this production, and the song title reads ‘Brooding Melancholy’. Lighting is muted and often dims, sounds of recordings are muffled like painful memories and direction sees Mansfield moving around the space like a lost child. Piaf’s life was a cycle of tragedy, that much is well known, and this production works hard to deliver the constancy of her pain sensitively – the addiction isn’t overplayed and the hopelessness at times gives way to hope as we are reminded of Piaf’s devil-may-care potty mouth and her amazing resilience when it came to her belief in love. But Mansfield is only ever a narrator in role (sometimes frustratingly adopting and dropping a French accent) who at intervals delivers an actual scene as Piaf, tossing back liquor and staring wide-eyed at the phone until we move swiftly on to another narration or song.‘The Singer’ and ‘The Pianist’ are our only performers, with Elizabeth Mansfield and Patrick Bridgman playing the pair respectively. Milord, La Foule, La Vie En Rose, Hymne L’amour, Padam Padam and L’Accordianiste are just a few of the thirteen songs included in the performance and each is delivered wonderfully. It’s certainly interesting to hear the soaring, textured orchestral sounds of Piaf’s songs stripped back in this way until the focus is simply on the core melody and the vocal performance. Yet while this is perfect for some songs, it most definitely proves the need for an orchestra or layered musical accompaniment to really capture the beauty and power of many songs in the way most have experienced them. I found myself hoping that Non, Je Ne Regretted Rien wouldn’t be attempted. An audience may rightly expect to hear this, but equally, hearing a talented singer not quite capable of reaching Piaf’s heights sing it is not likely to do the song justice. Factor in the lack of those spine tingling strings and you have a deeply disappointing rendition of a song which should soar and raise an audience to their feet. Trafford’s song translations offer a new experience of Piaf’s songs in that for many, this will be the first time they hear the songs in English. We are gifted the opportunity to hear what it is we’ve heard Piaf breaking her heart over on albums in all these years. Googling the lyrics in translation has no impact, but hearing them delivered to the same melody is what allows this production to provide insight.Although few could convincingly argue that Mansfield’s voice carries resemblance to Piaf’s, Mansfield does deliver the songs beautifully and it’s clear to see her living the experiences within the song as she delivers them. Yet Mansfield performs the songs with a sweet smoothness in no way related to the raw, bold and irrepressibly forceful vocals of Piaf herself; there’s no note sung which makes ears prickle at a beautiful resemblance – the melodic voice of Mansfield never finds a commonality in sound with Piaf. Mansfield’s voice is light and delicate – it begins to show the beginnings of strain when she reaches higher, more powerful notes, meaning that she wisely stops short of attempting the belting glory of Piaf – but that’s precisely what makes some of the most beautiful songs disappointing in this performance. Piaf sang like a wounded lion – roaring in a way which was unspeakably and at times paradoxically beautiful, while Mansfield is undoubtedly a talented singer but a tuneful kitten by comparison.Elizabeth Mansfield and Patrick Bridgment give justice to Piaf’s songbook with lovely performances. Mansfield clearly feels the songs and the narratives within them with every note, but there’s discord between concept and reality here; the stripped back sound fails to capture the rich fullness of Piaf’s music which people find so moving while Mansfield’s beautiful voice is a far cry from Piaf’s despite her impressive rolling rs. Look to Adrienne Warren, currently starring in Tina, The Tina Turner Musical, or Audra McDonald’s performance as Billie Holiday for performers who masterfully deliver notes unbelievably close to the focus of their tribute while also announcing their own uniqueness to audiences. This is a lovely show if you are intrigued to hear beautiful renditions of beautiful French songs in English, but don’t go expecting a fully fledged dramatic performance or a singer capable of Piaf’s rawness, drama or power.
Theatre by the Lake’s Hymn to Love – Homage to Piaf continues to tour until April 28th 2018 and you can find tickets here