Edith Piaf, the French singer who rose from nothing to great fame, only to succumb to an early death, is captured by Elena Roger in the Donmar Warehouse’s new production of Piaf, Pam Gems’s 1978 play. Caroline Bishop was at the first night.
From the first moment of Jamie Lloyd’s production, when a heavy red curtain swings to the floor of the Donmar stage with a theatrical flourish, and a frail, awkward figure in a black dress gingerly steps up to the microphone, it is clear that this will be an evening of dramatics and high emotion, as a play about tragic French singer Edith Piaf should be.
Pam Gems’s play was written in 1978, some 15 years after the singer’s death, at just 47, from alcoholism and drug abuse. The life of the petite Parisienne was captured in a film, La Vie En Rose, last year, and now Gems’s play is revived three decades after its premiere in a new, reworked version.
At 100 minutes straight through, it is a surprisingly short play, given the events that Piaf packed into her curtailed life, and it whips through her early years especially at a rapid pace. Discovered singing on a street corner in Paris by a rich gentleman, the young Edith is removed from her destitute life in a brothel and whipped into the shape of a performer by a series of managers with francs in their eyes. La Môme Piaf, as she is named, rises to international renown, and yet for all her fame and fortune, Edith cannot escape the unhappiness that dogs her. After Marcel, the one man she loves, is killed in a plane crash, Edith blots out her pain with drink and drugs, brushing off all warnings, until she finally succumbs to a tragically young death.
At such a pace, some of the details and characters may be lost to those unfamiliar with Piaf’s story. However, the production does give ample time to showcase the music which was such an outlet for Piaf’s despair and tragedy. In Elena Roger the Donmar has found a singer who captures the distinct timbre of Piaf’s voice, and the mix of defiance and vulnerability in this sassy, frail, crass, stubborn and complex woman. The contrast between her tiny frame and the muscular bulk of her lover Marcel – displayed in a well-staged boxing match – shows her vulnerability. While in another, particularly vivid scene, Roger performs in a crude, clown-like manner, depicting Piaf’s grotesque descent into her own demons.
On stage nearly all the time, with several costume changes on stage, Roger’s transformation from young, raw talent into tortured songstress is done before our eyes. As she steps forward one final time to sing her most famous song, Non, Je Ne Regrette Rein, Edith’s wide smile still shines brightly despite the tremor in her step and the thinning hair on her head.