Before sex and drugs were co-opted by rock'n'roll, they belonged to Edith Piaf. A diminutive woman whose looks were far from stunning, Piaf rose from singing on the street to become the highest-paid performer in the world, while engaging in countless affairs and, later, developing a morphine addiction. In this new production of Pam Gems's 1978 play-with-music, the Donmar has struck gold.
It begins with a bare stage: a brick road leading into black, decaying plaster. A drum crashes, a blood-crimson curtain falls, and a decrepit Piaf (Elena Roger) struggles to the microphone to sing the first notes of "Je Ne Regrette Rien" before another crash sends us back to the beginning of everything. Taking her from humble origins into the underworld, the play documents her life as a whirlwind of events, as she rises and falls from grace. These episodes take in the smuggling of French PoWs for the Resistance as German officers look on, an affair with an American boxer, and an array of husbands.
Of course, no story of a musical diva would be complete without her songs, and Piaf delivers them in abundance. All but two are left in their original French, and while the meaning can be garnered from context, it creates an additional layer of isolation for the character of Piaf as the audience are sent scrambling to remember their schoolroom French. Fortunately, Roger is a powerhouse vocalist and it is easy to ignore the words and give in to her charisma and charm.
While Piaf is a star vehicle, a weak link in the cast can undermine the entire effort. Thankfully, this is not the case: the supporting players are excellent, particularly Luke Evans as the boxer, Raymond, and Lorraine Bruce as Piaf's ex-roommate. Katherine Kingsley has the looks and charm to pass as Marlene Dietrich, although the director, Jamie Lloyd, has for some unfathomable reason instructed her to speak in an exaggerated Mel Brooks-esque accent.
The designer, Soutra Gilmour, utilises the space well. Leaving the stage bare focuses the attention on the characters and conveys the drabness of poverty and war. It's amazing just how big the Donmar's stage looks when not stuffed full of furniture.
Overall, Piaf is fast paced, well acted and loaded with classic tunes. However, some may find themselves turned off by the French lyrics and the sight of a frail Piaf shooting up on stage. Those who brave the challenges, though, will find a rewarding look at a fascinating figure.
To 20 Sept (08700 606 624; www.donmarwarehouse.com)
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