Steve John Shepherd
People rose to their feet at the end of the Donmars latest production, a revival of Pam Gems 1978 bio-drama about the iconic French singer. And while an ovation can sometimes feel like a forced and excessive gesture, here it felt entirely appropriate, such was the power of Elena Rogers performance in this whistle-stop tour through Edith Piaf’s life.
Though Marion Cotillards Oscar-winning turn as the Little Sparrow in La Vie En Rose is a recent memory for many, Rogers makes the role her own, razor-cheeked and gutter-mouthed, a tiny, yet formidable figure with a voice that seems to swell from nowhere. She is frequently lifted up by the other actors, dressed and undressed, like a doll. Not only does she manage to vocally recreate Edith Piafs best known songs without resorting to parody, but she also achieves that rarest of things: she ages on stage in a convincing manner (dodgy wigs aside), the cocky, spitting street kid of the early scenes morphing into a shuffling, drug-dependent figure by the end.
As she did in Evita, Roger takes this iconic figure and makes her human and whole, a considerable feat given that Gems play errs on the side of the superficial. Though it successfully points up Piafs street origins, painting her as a hard-talking woman who never fully escaped her seedy past, the writing is often workmanlike, verging towards clunky, with lines like: Piaf! What kind of name is that?
The play rattles through Piafs life, from her discovery singing in the streets to her premature death, hunched in a wheelchair, scalp showing through her thinning hair. In ninety five interval-less minutes, it covers her escalating fame, her numerous lovers, her short-lived relationship with the boxer Marcel Cerdan said to be the true love of her life – her car accidents and her subsequent descent into addictions to both morphine and alcohol. Characters run on, are name checked, then dash off again. Its very much a case of oh look, theres Marlene Dietrich, theres Charles Aznavour; most scenes are short, sometimes frustratingly so, and with the remaining cast members playing several roles apiece, it is sometimes hard to keep track of who is who. Of the other actors in a talented cast only Lorraine Bruce as Piafs friend, the one-time prostitute Toine, is afforded the opportunity to make an impact.
Soutra Gilmours striking set, a bare stage framed by a Gothic stone arch, contains echoes of Notre Dame and seems entirely appropriate to the material, and the production sticks to a muted palette of colours browns, greys and the black of Piafs trademark dress which is disrupted only by the red of the velvet curtains that tumble from above at the start and finish of the play.
Though it is at times a frustratingly busy and restless production, all these narrative niggles faded into the background in the face of Rogers generous performance. She is unafraid of ugliness, and seems to physically shrink, if such a thing were possible, as the play progresses. And by the end, as she predictably, but satisfyingly steps up to the microphone to sing Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien the audience is completely under her spell. Its just a shame the production as a whole couldnt milk more emotion from her tragic trajectory. Theres a curious coldness to proceedings, perhaps because the play presents only a skeleton view of Piafs life story and does little to flesh out the legend.