Steve John Shepherd
Elena Roger does a very good impersonation of Edith Piaf. If you are looking for an upmarket version of TV’s Stars in Your Eyes, you should get along to the Donmar’s production of Piaf now playing at the Vaudeville Theatre.
In its original RSC production 30 years ago, Pam Gems’ play packed a real dramatic punch. Jane Lapotaire, in the leading role, made no attempt to impersonate the singer but her performance, and that of the whole ensemble, carried tremendous dramatic weight and it was a showpiece of superlative acting.
Jamie Lloyd’s new production gives us a filleted and eviscerated revision of Gems’ script and the emphasis is all changed. The focus is now on a series of spotlit solos great musical numbers to be sure with linking vignettes that provide a flimsy outline of the train wreck that was Piaf’s life. The result is more of a cabaret than a play.
Elena Roger gets Piaf spot-on and her physicalisation is very convincing. When not singing, though, she is thin-voiced and heavily accented, making it difficult to understand her a lot of the time. In fact, the production is a hotch-potch of accents, with an Irish Charles Aznavour (Owen Sharpe) and Russian-sounding Marlene Dietrich (Katherine Kingsley) joining Roger’s strange Franco-Argentinian blend.
Managers, lovers, husbands, low-lifes and celebrities flit in and out of the frame. No sooner do we know who Louis Leple (her first manager) is, than he’s despatched with an offstage gunshot. Marcel Cerdan (the boxer who was the love of her life) is there one moment in a loving embrace and seconds later a deafening sound effect (indicating but not explaining that he was killed in a plane crash) consigns him to history.
Without any real exposition, not a lot registers and at nearly two hours without interval, the lack of dramatic impetus means there’s a fair amount of dragging, leaving us waiting anxiously for the next song to fill the void. As with any good song selection, we’re kept waiting until the very end for Je Ne Regrette Rien.
The production no doubt suffers from its transfer from the intimate Donmar Warehouse to a proscenium theatre and, while this is inevitable if it is to be brought to a wider audience, there’s an unfortunate sense of distancing which adds to the two-dimensional nature of the piece.
The recent biopic La Vie En Rose, which won an Oscar for Marion Cotillard, was enthralling and emotionally draining but was a fairly standard chronological trawl through Piaf’s life. Theatre as a medium can do so much more and it’s a shame that this revival, in being so televisual, takes the same approach.
But it is a great impersonation and you’re unlikely to hear these magnificent songs performed so convincingly in the theatre.