Piaf

by Pam Gems; dir Chris Gilbey-Smith
Loft Theatre, Leamington Spa
4 – 14 April 2012

Piaf is a semi-musical play about the life of legendary French singer Edith Piaf, from her ‘discovery’ busking on the streets of Paris to her death. Most, but not all, of the musical aspect is provided by Piaf (Hannah Farquharson) singing her songs (or parts of them) as a performance within a performance.

Technically this was a very impressive show. The minimalist set was attractive and well designed, and combined with the excellent lighting, allowed for a great deal of versatility. Which leads on to another very good aspect: no worries about long drawn-out scene changes in this one or even the pauses of blackouts. The scenes basically overlapped such that as one was reaching its end, the next would be starting on a different part of the stage, the actors bringing on and taking off any props or piece of furniture as required. Very smooth and impressive – something other directors could take note of.

It was a commanding performance by Hannah Farquharson; like Piaf she is small but has a belter of a voice and was clearly relishing this very demanding role which rarely saw her leave the stage but quite frequently saw her step across it from one scene into the next. All the other parts were played by a capable ensemble with varying degrees of success. Esther Dunn as Piaf’s best friend Toine did particularly well.

So, all the makings of a top-notch show then. Except that, from about half-way through the second act it all started to feel a bit samey. This may be down to it needing cutting or a change of pace at some point, but I also think there were two hurdles to do with the script itself that weren’t quite overcome. Firstly, as a biopic it didn’t have the same kind of build to a crescendo that a good fictional piece would have, and secondly it is very easy to get tired of Piaf as a character by the end. What was endearing youthful exuberance and seizing of opportunities by a street-hardened waif, turns into irritating self-interest by the older woman. Probably a fair reflection of what it was like to know Piaf, but it doesn’t make for the best theatre.

All in all though, an interesting experience.