On the face of it, a bold, independent artist like Martha Wainwright, whose first language is English, would seem the last person to stage a sell-out show at the Barbican made up almost entirely of Edith Piaf covers.
Pregnant and wearing a sparkly striped top and leggings, she resembles a gatecrashing aunt at a party; quite the last person to do the French legend justice and about as far removed from the begowned look of a concert-giving diva as it’s possible to be. But then Wainwright is not about impersonations.
Developed with Hal Willner, the man responsible for collaborative exercises that have recently ranged from sea shanties to Disney celebrations, Wainwright’s Piaf show premiered in New York. Recordings from that show formed the basis for her Piaf album, Sans Fusils, Ni Souliers, A Paris.
Tonight she’s in London with those songs and many of the same musicians. A small horns and strings section is augmented by Wainwright’s husband Brad Albetta on double bass, plus guitar, accordion and grand piano. Drums and the bigger horns are noticeable in their absence; this will be a concert about intimacy and emotion rather than soaring bombast.
Behind the ensemble, two screens display etchings of Piaf and Wainwright between songs. It’s at these moments that Wainwright lets it be known that covering Piaf was Willner’s idea, that she hasn’t seen Marion Cotillard’s Oscar-winning star turn in La Vie En Rose and that she hasn’t learned all the words. “There’re so many of them,” she exclaims, to giggles from the audience.
Plainly Wainwright isn’t here to pass an exam on Piaf. With a cribsheet in front of her and from an understated start, she instead conjures Piaf’s world from the stuff behind the obvious headlines, exploring tales of big-hearted hookers, lovelorn soldiers, hungry street urchins and the many other colourful characters who populated pre-fame Piaf’s Paris and her material. Leaving most of the big hits and Piaf’s life story to one side, Wainwright is deliberate about getting at the human side of the legend’s material, examining the songs themselves and, with her introductions, relating them to her own life and our time.
The la-la-las of C’est Toujours La Mme Histoire are still hauntingly familiar and Les Grognards, all military rhythm though of course without military drums, is the closest we get to linking Piaf to another concert of the Barbican’s francophone season, Carousel: The Songs Of Jacques Brel.
While this short concert, a half hour each side of an interval, doesn’t completely preclude Piaf’s better known songs – La Foule and L’Accordeoniste both go down well – it’s that empathy with which Wainwright colours her candid performance that makes it work. At one point she introduces a song about what a mother would tell her daughter in personal terms about her own pregnancy, while the heartbreaking Adieu Mon Coeur, accompanied on the screens by pictures of that most romantic of farewell props, the departing train, channels a universal regret at bidding farewell to a loved one. With Piaf, as in Brief Encounter, it’s gulpingly dramatic.
But it’s during the encore that Piaf, Wainwright and the audience fuse. Can You Spare A Dime, Brother? is the night’s only English-language song, nodding at once to our current economic troubles and recalling Piaf’s own struggles before fame and fortune smiled on her. And then she at last moves away from her cribsheet and microphone, taking full control of her stage – and makes La Vie En Rose a lullaby. Her powerful voice reaches right out longingly through the venue, thrilling the audience which sporadically, beautifully, hums along. They’re whistling the main refrain long after the house lights come on.