Pam Gem’s play Piaf is a curious thing. As a piece of biographical drama, it barely scrapes the surface of the troubled life of the famed French chanteuse, using an episodic style to feature key vignettes as we speed through the rollercoaster ups and downs of her rise to iconic status. And inbetween these scenes, we get performances of some of her more famous songs like ‘La Vie En Rose’ and ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’. But from these slight beginnings can come some kind of alchemic wonder as demonstrated in the superlative 2008 Donmar Warehouse production which featured Elena Roger in the kind of performance that I will remember for the rest of my life.
So no pressure at all on any subsequent productions…though Paul Kerryson’s revival for Leicester’s Curve theatre – a venue really carving out a niche for itself as one of the hottest spots for musical theatre (even if this is technically a play with songs…) – with Frances Ruffelle in the lead role comes close to capturing some of that magic. Staging the show in the more intimate studio there is an inspired decision, enabling the kind of cosy nightclub feel that is entirely right for this kind of performance. For Ruffelle really does dig deep into the emotion of the character to give an almost shocking rawness to her, a blunt directness that makes no apologies for the selfishness of her actions and which lends an even greater depth to her renditions of the songs.
And the show needs this kind of lead performance as Piaf is the only real constant in the whirl of the world around her. A talented company do the best they can and work wonders in some cases – Laura Pitt-Pulford’s friend Toine, Tiffany Graves’ sultry Marlene Dietrich, Russell Morton’s fan-turned-companion Theo – but largely they’re rushed in and out with little opportunity for the kind of characterisation that would enrich our understanding of Piaf as a person, rather than rattling through the key dramatic moments of her life.
But it must be said that a lot of this analysis only kicks in after the show has finished. In the experience of watching it, Kerryson and Ruffelle ensure that we’re entirely caught up in this tragic journey and Ben Atkinson’s musical direction sounds entirely appropriate (if a little loud) in the space in which Simon Scullion’s design serve the story well. It’s an often breathlessly exciting and emotionally rousing piece of theatre.