Review: Piaf. Leeds Playhouse

It’s true that until recently, I didn’t know much more about Edith Piaf than her song: “Non, je ne regrette rien”, which has always been a ‘go-to’ for anyone sticking their chin out to the world.

I vaguely recall my grandmother would also say: “Ooh she had a tragic life,” whenever The Little Sparrow was played on whatever radio show it was, (that seemed to play incessantly on a Sunday lunchtime throughout my childhood, as roast beef and Yorkshire puds were cooking to perfection).

I don’t know if it’s osmosis…(alright – I know it’s probably not that…), but the Edith Piaf ‘thing’ finally clicked for me in Leeds Playhouse Courtyard Theatre last night. This latest incarnation of Pam Gem’s 1978 play has had some mixed reviews as it touches down in West Yorkshire – where it runs until August 7th. So I wasn’t sure what to expect.

Credit – Marc Brenner

The performance opens with a typically Parisian backdrop, expertly crafted by Frankie Bradshaw , but everyone’s caught a case of ‘Mockney’ – and the decision to re-site London’s ‘East End’ across the Channel initially didn’t feel quite right, but by the end of Act One, it wasn’t noticeable.

From the outset, Jenna Russell playing Piaf, makes it abundantly clear that our anti-heroine really did have a ‘tragic’ life. And then some. Prostitution, racketeering and violence, not to mention collaboration with German occupiers, provided the launchpad for a global career – and a life that was cut tragically short at the age of 47.

Club owner Louis Leplee, played masterfully by Garry Robson, is credited with giving Piaf her ‘big break’. She in-turn, was mixed up in his subsequent murder, but it didn’t check her progress. Robson is accomplished in every role he inhabits throughout the performance, but it’s hardly surprising: his career to date includes some really important directorial work that transcends the creative sector.

Credit – Marc Brenner

Sally Ann Triplett’s Toine also has Piaf’s strength and vulnerability in buckets. I’m guessing a Piaf scholar could tell us much about the complex and fractious relationship between the two women that remained until the end, but Director Adam Penfold is able to hold a lens to the pair that left me in no doubt how important friendship is.

The nine-strong ensemble are fresh from their run at Nottingham Playhouse and each one deserves mention. Samuel James as Bruno, Joseph Prowen as Louis, who as her agent, tries to hold the lurching Piaf on course in later life. Laura Pitt-Pulford is incredible as the sophisticated Marlene Dietrich. Louis Gaunt and Zheng Xi Yong dazzle in a wonderfully choreographed boxing scene. And Matthew Woodyatt, whose role as Charles Aznavor was poignant.

The music throughout the performance, sung in both French and English is exquisite. The decision to use both languages is aimed at helping audiences connect with the pieces. It works.

Credit – Marc Brenner

Jenna Russell captures Piaf’s tone and intonation perfectly. The ensembles rendition of ‘Les Trois Cloche’ (‘Little Jimmy Brown’) was a masterstroke.

Audiences will be moved by this tragic life story that takes us from nothing – to Carnegie Hall – and back again to nothing. While there’s clearly more to The Little Sparrow than can be conveyed in 2 hours on stage, the cast and crew are to be applauded for their new interpretation of a familiar story.

4 Stars.

Piaf runs until Saturday 7th August.

Colin Petch

July 2021

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