Piaf, Donmar, London<br/>Dybbuk, King's, Edinburgh<br/>The Tell-Tale Heart, Royal Lyceum, Edinburgh

From the gutter to the stars &ndash; it's Edith's life laid bare

Sunday 17 August 2008 00:00
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Why did we ever think this was any good? The biodrama Piaf by Pam Gems – when premiered by the RSC in 1979 – transferred to the West End and to Broadway. Presumably the French chanteuse's life, glimpsed in splinters, seemed stylistically exciting back then. Gems' rushed sequence of snapshots propels her heroine from whoring to stardom, with the Nazi occupation, umpteen lovers, substance abuse and at least two car crashes en route. Today, the effect (not improved by a rewrite) is like thumbing through an ill-constructed flick book. It's hopelessly jerky.

Staged by the Donmar's new associate, Jamie Lloyd, this revival looks passable as set designs go, with an ornate crumbling proscenium arch over a seedy alley of peeling posters. In the starring role, Elena Roger (Evita in Michael Grandage's production) is an extraordinary presence, her gaunt, glassy-eyed face perched atop a tiny body. This Argentine singer, doing a French accent, mercifully avoids recreating Gems's cockney sparrow – a sort of charmless Eliza Doolittle.

That said, her limited acting ability is exposed on this thrust stage. Though she wells up during one of her many chansons, you get no real sense that her character has been through the emotional mill. Little is discernibly going on behind the eyes, although the wooden gestures have some basis in Piaf's filmed performances. As a singer, Roger cuts the mustard, but she is not a soundalike.

Regarding the drink and drugs, various scenes show these being consumed orally and intravenously, only to skim over the after-effects. Roger appears stone-cold sober while everyone else is a bewildering blur. Her amours whiz in and out at such at rate that you have no idea who they are, and actors doubling up creates even more confusion. Indeed, this cursory drama is as maladroit as the on-stage coitus – "wham bam merci ma'am". Piaf may regrette rien but, really, it's woeful.

In Dybbuk, at the Edinburgh International Festival, the pioneering Polish troupe TR Warszawa explores the inner demons of Jewish men and women in the old world and the new. This experimental piece adapts Szymon Anski's classic folk drama where an unwilling bride is possessed by the seething spirit of a dead man. And that is yoked to Hanna Krall's short story where an American man is haunted by his brother who died in the Holocaust.

The golden-haired bride – possibly sexually abused – hair-raisingly transmogrifies into a wanton monster, slurping on melon slices. Director Krzysztof Warlikowski also explores the overlap between superstitious exorcisms and shrinks with wry intelligence. Nonetheless, this production needs to do far more explaining about the lions, unicorns and obscure kabbalah symbols twirling on its glowing computer-generated backdrop.

More gothic horrors await as the insane narrator of Edgar Allan Poe's The Tell-Tale Heart sits frozen on an endless stairway to heaven – or to hell. This adaptation, by the avant-garde director and classically trained pianist Barrie Kosky, is an enthralling piece of music theatre.

Physical movement is minimal as Poe's nameless twisted soul (Martin Niedermair, speaking in softly accented English) recounts how he lurked and murdered an old man. In spite of stowing the dismembered corpse under the floorboards, he continues to hear its beating heart.

Maybe this confessional monologue is slightly too Beckettian, starting with fractured phrases. However, the multi-talented Kosky creates startlingly powerful images. Niedermair's face floats in the darkness like a ghoulish decapitated skull, and when he is seized by a fit – just his head violently flicking – it's like Frankenstein painted by Francis Bacon. The lighting design alone deserves an award.

Meanwhile, the madman's stammering speech is interwoven with off-beam haunting melodies accompanied by Kosky on a piano in the shadows. Bach's serene harmonies, pianissimo, run counter to the escalating verbal frenzy – like a memory of lost peace of mind. Then the narrator's little shrieks of terror turn into a high, angelic Purcell aria, as if the horror has transported this sadist into a state of perverse ecstasy. Eek.

'Piaf' (0870 060 6624) to 20 Sep

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