Piaf at Curve, Leicester - here’s what stage magazine had to say
Twenty-seven years after creating one of the most iconic roles in musical theatre as Eponine in the original production of Les Miserables, Frances Ruffelle is now playing Edith Piaf, one of the most iconic French singers of all time, and it suits her.
Anyone who has seen Ruffelle’s own edgily idiosyncratic cabaret shows will recognise the raw, ragged, occasionally raging and intense qualities she brings to Piaf.
Though she sings most of the numbers in French, she plays Piaf not so much as the little French sparrow of legend but as the Cockney canary of Pam Gems’s frequently coarse, earthy script.
It’s not just the vividness of her own quirky personality Ruffelle channels into her vision of Piaf, but also the fact that she is a very fine singer-actress.
This allows her to bury herself deep within the character to reveal her resilience and power – offstage and on.
Gems’ play is a fragmentary and impressionistic collage of scenes from Piaf’s life that’s part documentary, part re-imagined gloss of a woman who went from a life on the streets to revered in her lifetime and even more so since her death.
Ruffelle – who is that age, though looks far younger – is sharp, smart casting.
She brings exceptional vocal prowess to 11 of Piaf’s most famous numbers.
But more than any of this, she has the true star’s ability to make all of this greater than the sum of its parts.
For it has to be admitted that for all the colouring texture Ruffelle seems to bring so effortlessly to her portrait and the clarity of director Paul Kerryson’s unravelling of the show’s episodic narrative to lend it a seamless fluidity, the play is a scrappy affair.
Most of the other characters aren’t so much developed as merely introduced.
Here’s the boxer Marcel, the love of Piaf’s life. There’s a caricature Marlene Diedrich (Tiffany Graves, lending her a bit more sass than what’s written) and there again is the fan Theo (Russell Morton) who becomes her devoted companion at the end of her life.
The only other character who receives more than a sketch is Toine, Piaf’s early friend on the streets, played with impressive depth and colour by Laura Pitt-Pulford.
The animating qualities of some of the performances are also revealed in the fine textures of Ben Atkinson’s musical direction and particularly Zivorad Nikolic’s accordion playing and the angular designs of Simon Scullion, atmospherically lit by Arnim Friess.
Versions of this play have already been seen three times in the West End. But like Tracie Bennett’s brilliant recreation of Judy Garland in End of the Rainbow that began at Northampton, Ruffelle’s Piaf could yet follow a similar route. It deserves a longer life.