THEATRE / Regrets? More than a few: Paul Taylor reviews Piaf at the Piccadilly Theatre, London

Paul Taylor
Monday 12 October 2015 13:36

No one could dispute that Elaine Paige has the size (or rather lack of size) to play Piaf; the question was - would she have the true measure of the role? Having watched Peter Hall's somewhat pedestrian production of Pam Gems's 1978 play, I think the short answer to that one is: only up to a point mes braves.

Moving forward with irritatingly snapshot scenes, the play shows us the diva's rise from prostitution and involvement in murder to stardom and dependence on young men, drink and drugs. With her lewd laugh and artlessly earthy manner, Ms Paige's broad cockney, Carry On Not Regretting version of Piaf signals well the relish with which the star responded to one aspect of her reversed fortunes: instead of being bought for sex, she could now do the buying.

In one scene, eyes shut, glass in hand, she directs the young man of the moment to touch her up, while he reads out her reviews. Understandably he looks a bit sheepish (there are people nearby), but from her blankly contented expression, you'd think he was up to nothing more intimate than a shoulder massage.

One of the notices he reads to Piaf suggests that, 'She sings of being alone and of feeling bad . . . and we can't bear it for her'. It's just this dimension of inner damage, of her vulnerability beneath the plangent cynical stoicism that Paige's performance lacks. She captures strikingly the physical presence: the bandy-legged totter to the mike, the stillness, the hands suddenly forking forward in entreaty, and there is the same arresting (if not, in her case, poignant) contradiction of a huge sound emerging from a little dumpy body. The animating soul, though, is absent, and even in the anthem-like numbers, such as Je ne regrette rien in which Paige is at her best, you miss the urgency and timbre of voice that made the original legendary. The trouble is that Piaf had had it rough from childhood and it showed, whereas Paige for all her skills can't quite efface the impression (however erroneous) of a nice middle-class upbringing.

Admittedly, the play debunks the myth of the brave street sparrow, but there's a danger that the corrective has been taken too far. (In fact, the play's reflections on class, sex and fame seem a deal less impressive now than in 1978.) As for the final songs, I've always thought its sentiments were a bit suspect. They remind me of a poem in which Yeats writes: 'When such as I cast out remorse / So great a sweetness flows into the breast / We must laugh and we must sing' - to which you want to reply, why should we be thrilled because you can forgive yourself? I'm afraid that's how I feel listening to Je ne regrette rien.

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