Piaf at Curve. Review by Lizz Brain
Edith Piaf died 50 years ago this autumn yet her legacy as France's Little Sparrow lives on.
Her life, however, sadly follows a path which has been walked both before and after her lifetime by other household names from Judy Garland to Amy Winehouse.
Yet although there's nothing new in seeing talent succumb to drink and drugs, the intimacy of Curve's studio theatre and Paul Kerryson's taut direction ensure you feel the full horror and despair of Piaf's tragic addiction.
Pam Gems' play is an odd one – neither straightforward narrative nor musical theatre – but a series of fragmented snapshots of Piaf's early adult life in act one, and much more fluid as a play in act two.
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And the musical numbers which weave the scenes together are the singer's performances in their simplest form – her trademark simple black dress, black curtain, a microphone, and that remarkable voice.
West End veteran and Tony Award winner Frances Ruffelle steps into Piaf's diminutive shadow with apparent effortless ease, and one can only marvel at the level of preparation to learn a vast array of songs in both English and French, as well as the dialogue for a character who is rarely off-stage.
She brings to the fore the brash, sometimes caustic, attitude of the street singer and sometime street walker who for all her apparent independence, craves love and stability.
So it's appropriate that act one closes with the emotive Hymne a L'Amour after learning her lover, boxer Marcel Cerdan (Oliver Boot), has been killed in a plane crash.
It's then in act two that we witness the terrifying downward spiral as she becomes dependent on drugs, the denial of her addiction, the effect it has on her live performances and the slow destruction of her life and career until she died, from liver cancer, aged 47.
But it is perhaps a flaw of the sometimes disjointed play, rather than Ruffelle's performance, that we don't truly connect with Piaf or empathise with her tragedy.
Kerryson has surrounded her with sterling support too – Stephen Webb's Charles Aznavour, Russell Morton's devoted Theo, Laura Pitt-Pulford as Piaf's best friend Toine all providing distinctive and notable performances.
Simon Scullion's design is simple and mostly black, enabling the focus of the piece to remain the title character, while Ben Harrison's sound design allows us to dip seamlessly between backstage and concert performance.
Huge nod too to the musicians, particularly Zivorad Nikolic on the accordion, and Ben Atkinson's musical direction and orchestrations.
But the key here is in the re-creation of Piaf's performances. Ruffelle brings an energy to the songs whilst always allowing that glimmer of the desperate sadness underneath, the love of performance but the need for love and applause.
From La Vie En Rose; l'Accordeoniste; Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien and Hymne a L'Amour, to name a few, she momentarily brings the Little Sparrow back to life.
And 50 years on, that can't be a bad thing.
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