29 January 2016
Piaf! The Show
Theatre Royal, Glasgow, Wednesday 27 January, part of Celtic Connections
There’s a growing back catalogue of tributes to the pocket-sized chanteuse, Edith Piaf. The combination of her school of hard knocks childhood, followed by a string of turbulent love affairs, then a substance abuse problem – it’s the stuff that Hollywood biopic dreams are made of. Tragedy seemed to trail after the French cabaret singer, but like fellow divas Billie Holliday, Nina Simone and Etta James, whose personal lives were also hamstrung by addiction and heartache, Piaf wouldn’t have enduring appeal if she didn’t have the voice to back up the tabloid-pleasing headlines.
Piaf’s voice could be many things – gravelly and defiant, creamy and suave, featherlight and vulnerable – she could sound like an angry barfly on a three-day hangover, or a jilted and unhinged lover about to do herself a mischief.
Various homages have been paid to the artist formerly known as “The Sparrow”, including Marion Cotillard’s Oscar-winning portrayal of Piaf in La Vie En Rose in 2007, or Pam Gem’s regularly revisited seventies stage play, Piaf. They chose, as did various biographies, Edinburgh Fringe shows and TV documentaries, to zoom in on the grittier side of Piaf’s private life, but this French production wants to keep the focus pretty firmly on her songs.
Piaf! The Show is performed almost entirely in the singer’s native French. Besides the odd “thank you”, and a verse of Autumn Leaves in English, the jazz standard written by Johnny Mercer and based on Jacques Prévert’s original song Les Feuilles Mortes, it’s the only break from Piaf’s mother tongue. Even the interval here is the ‘entracte’, and when an audience karaoke moment is slotted in for La Vie En Rose near the end, it quickly becomes obvious who was paying attention in French lessons at school.
The audience watch various black and white film reels unfolding in the background, showing Rue Pigalle and Montmartre’s fabled cobbled streets, then a montage of Piaf’s various love interests and front page splashes as she exploded in popularity during the 1940s and fifties.
Besides the visuals, there is no narrative per se, and for the most part, non French speakers in the crowd have to rely on the same clues as silent movie or old fashioned opera fans to follow the meaning of the songs, reading the overwrought facial expressions and stage props to get the gist. Piaf’s are some very big tiny shoes to fill, but singer Anne Carrere rises to the challenge, coming very close to nailing pretty much every aspect of the singer’s voice and mannerisms, besides maybe her trademark overly-pruned eyebrows.
If Carrere and her four-piece band (double bass, xylophone, accordion and piano) have performed this show over a hundred times in 23 countries before giving it its UK premiere in Glasgow tonight, they show no signs of wearying. Carrere’s arms slice through the air in indignation, her legs drape flirtatiously over male props in the front row, and her ballerina slip-ons pirouette her through lilting numbers about merry-go-rounds and circus acts. No r goes unrolled, no ‘bof’ is left unpouted, and every shrug, grimace and furrowed brow comes on cue, helping to tell the stories of all of Piaf’s embittered barmaids, pining lovers and doomed legionnaires (Piaf’s hit Mon Legionnaire went on to be a gay disco anthem in the eighties, after Serge Gainsbourg recorded it and added new connotations.)
Je M’En Fous Pas Mal and Mon Manège A Moi are gutsy highlights, but the show is not over until the tiny lady sings Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien, and sing it Carrere does. Belting it out, tears can be seen springing involuntarily from eyes all over the crowd, and Carrere can’t resist camply hamming it up with some pained sobs of her own, before wiping her eyes on the hem of the piano player’s jacket.
Read the review online at The Times here (subscription needed).