"Sensational" is a word that should be used sparingly in theatre criticism. It had to be hauled out of hibernation, though, to describe the performance of the pint-sized Argentinian phenomenon, Elena Roger, as Evita in the West End revival a couple of years ago of the hit musical.
Roger is a force of nature and then some. She oxygenates a stage. She's diminutive but she devours theatrical space in inverse proportion. Those unbelievable high-kicks; that voracious smile; the effortless bedazzlement of her glamour – yes, star quality is like a trained yet untamed animal that rages out of her.
So it is sad to say that I found her portrayal of Edith Piaf in Pam Gems's play eerily unmoving. The piece, let it be said, has not aged well, even reworked as here. It's one of those dramas that show you the difference between the diva as icon and the diva as person. You know it's only a matter of time before said diva sticks a syringe into herself and before the burthen of the songs and barrage of slaps-in-the-face start to build up an overtly ironic relation.
This is not, in any way, to slight the sufferings of divas such as Piaf. But I do suggest that it ill-behoves a drama about the exploitation of this chanteuse to appear to be hitching a lift on her plight, as Gems's crass, cliché-clogged piece does.
Piaf sang as though her life depended on it. Roger sings as though her lungs depend on it. Her delivery is huge and gutsy but it does not sound from the gut. Watching her in Jamie Lloyd's punchy, proscenium-arched production, I kept thinking of computer-generated images and how they annihilate any sense of real odds being overcome.
Instead of a woman disintegrating from men, drink, drugs, the politics of showbiz, the politics of Occupied France etc, we get an actress in a succession of clever wigs. Even when they wither and bald, she seems to have inexhaustible Latin vitality.
Roger is again following Elaine Paige who originated the role of Evita and played Piaf in the first major revival of this play. She turned it into a kind of Cockney "Carry On Not Regretting". Roger keeps her accent surrounded by a bevy of handsome men who speak in English tones and have to cope with the story being told at such breakneck, Idiots-guide speed that it allows none of them (from Yves Montand to Charles Aznavour) the time to establish much sense of identity. At the Donmar this year, I have witnessed both the most spontaneous standing ovation (for Michael Grandage's The Chalk Garden) and the least – here.
The play suggests the desire to "own" a diva – "Ladies and Gentlemen, your very own Edith Piaf" – is in the best interests of nobody. So the almost collective and automatic leap from the seats at this premiere told its own paradoxical story. In one way, it was the best moment of the evening.Reuse content