Piaf, Charing Cross Theatre

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Icon Edith Piaf inspired numerous films and plays, including 1978 play with music, Piaf. The four foot, 8 inches tall chanteuse from a broken home died at just 47, but left a songbook often heard in popular culture. These songs, which feature heavily, epitomize the defiant spirit of a France under attack, painfully relevant today. Addicted to drink and painkillers, the little sparrow must have struggled immensely with her inner demons but Pam Gems’ script avoids such nuance, for her or any of the other characters. Cameron Leigh’s belter of a voice reveals Piaf’s passion and turmoil through her songs, and the rest of the cast provide good vocal support, but Gems’ diabolically awful book manages to be rushed, tedious and two-dimensional all at once.

Portrayed as a selfish, junkie nymphomaniac who treats people as commodities, there is little room for audience sympathy in the first half. The scenes are short and delivered with an even, speedy pace; it’s as if director Jari Laakso feels uncomfortable with Piaf’s poor characterization and the gaping jumps in time that leave even the most important of events glossed over, and he wants to get to the interval ASAP. The second half marginally improves as Piaf’s health declines and she is seen as frail, vulnerable and poor. A few of the lines get laughs, as the humour is less distasteful than earlier in the play.

Cameron Leigh is an explosive barrage of rudeness as Edith Piaf and clearly struggles to find any decency in the script’s portrayal. Instead, she wisely focuses on revealing the character’s emotional life in her songs, the best feature of this play. Backed up by her best friend Toine (Samantha Spurgin), Marlene Dietrich (the imposingly glam Valerie Cutko) and an array of multi-rolling men and actor-musos, their vocal prowess makes this production bearable. It’s a small cast for the number of characters, but there is some good physical multi-rolling and costume indications help make up for scarcity in the dialogue.

Laakso and the cast energetically do their best, but the overwhelming issue in Piaf is Gems’ atrocious script. Otherwise, the songs are well sung, the production suits the theatre well and the set (Phillipa Batt) and lighting (Chris Randall) are well considered and often striking. It’s just a shame Gems isn’t alive to re-write it.


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