Monday 26 July 2021 at Leeds Playhouse.
There’s no doubt that Edith Piaf’s life and talent were extraordinary. With such tragedy in her life, it makes perfect sense that such melancholy should have found its way under her skin and into her music, but this take on her life story from Pam Gems certainly doesn’t dwell on tragedy. Piaf’s famed vulnerability and perpetual status as victim of love are present, but this production is determined to focus on Piaf’s unwavering wit, irreverence and indefatigable spirit. While her relationship with liquor and drugs and her various losses do inevitably feature, and while this is not necessarily a sympathetic portrayal – particularly as it makes light of her darknesses perhaps a little too often – it is a fine, atmospheric production telling a fascinating life story.
Jenna Russell is a fantastic lead here. Quite apart from the impressive pipes, she captures the humour and fragility of this icon beautifully and it’s rewarding to see her delivering the material with similar gusto while never attempting to simply imitate. Russell’s comedic layer is assisted tenfold by Sally Ann Triplett’s take on a role which essentially functions as a comic sidekick – Toine. What Toine hasn’t done in a back alley is a very short list and her status as a survivalist prostitute makes her the source and butt of many a jest – particularly early on, the pair seem to exist in a haze of jibes and blue banter.
Adam Penfold’s direction sees this story told with a realism and in-yer-face bawdy comedy, but also some nicely surreal moments as Piaf’s stability begins to falter. Frankie Bradshaw’s set design and Jack Knowles’ lighting maintain the atmosphere of Parisian dives even as the action moves from such places to grand concert venues and impersonal hotel rooms, with torn posters offering permanent reminders of Piaf’s rise and fall even while laughter and bickering play out in the foreground.
With that sense of visual authenticity in place, it’s definitely a bit of a shock to the system to hear Piaf sporting a thick cockney accent – something introduced with a comic thwack via her first spoken words: “Don’tchu fackin’ dare!” Having mulled over this questionable approach, I can only conclude that it does make some sense; cockney allows for an easy reference point for English audiences and also allows the jokes to land with more clarity than might have been the case if the punchlines were offered in an unsteady french accent. It might feel like we’re waiting for Dodger’s swaggering entrance at times, but there’s no getting away from the charm on offer at the hands of such a strong company with a firm grasp on their material.
The very best thing about this production though is its handling of Edith Piaf’s musical legacy. Russell and Triplett, when joined by Laura Pitt-Pulford’s equally powerful vocals (as a fab Marlene Dietrich), provide some real beauty at the heart of the action. In fact, some of the most beautiful moments are to be found in short duets shared across that trio, but also with the talented Louis Gaunt (Theo) and Zheng Xi Yong (Lucien). And then there are the ensemble moments to appreciate, with the performance of “Les Trois Cloches” being a particular stand out. It’s worth noting, too, that Piaf greats most will have some awareness of are featured here, at times with English introductions to give some insight: “La Vie En Rose”, “L’Accordéoniste”, “Hymne à L’amour”, “Milord” and of course, “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”. Fans of Piaf’s music should be satisfied with the selection I think, and in truth, the gorgeous encore alone is worth the trip.
For me, it’s always a marker of a worthwhile production when I find myself compelled to revisit the source material. I tell no lie when I say nothing but Piaf has been playing all day long today – “Padam, Padam”!
Piaf is a Leeds Playhouse and Nottingham Playhouse co-production and plays Leeds Playhouse until August 7th 2021. You can find tickets here.