Elizabeth Mansfield is a brave soul. For the past few years, she has toured successfully in a succession of one-woman musical shows, and indeed, not so long ago, was nominated for an Olivier award for her performance as Marie Lloyd.
Her current presentation serves up thumb-nail sketches of the lives and times of singer Edith Piaf and writer Bertolt Brecht, skilfully combining a straight- to-audience approach with songs with which each was memorably associated. The evening is a first-person, autobiographical account of the principal events in their lives, yet it is more too.
The words are so elegantly constructed that this is much more than a standard 'and then I met' bio-formula. Mansfield and her co-writer, Steve Trafford (who also translated the Piaf lyrics), manage to get to the heart and soul of their subjects, and the songs are so skilfully interwoven that they truly add to the story.
Piaf and Brecht sound like an improbable pairing - Piaf the street singer and sometime prostitute who wore her heart on her sleeve, and Brecht, the disenchanted and intellectual product of a bourgeois upbringing. Yet in the way they are presented by Mansfield they appear as two sides of the same coin. Piaf brought her chansons, stories of love and loss, from the Parisian street to the middle classes, Brecht was the converse, analysing and theatricalising his cynicism. Mansfield presents both in a form that makes them accessible to the masses.
It is a fascinating mix and is performed impeccably by Mansfield in a minimalist cabaret setting, accompanied only by her musical director Russell Churney, whose piano takes centre stage. During the first half of the evening, Mansfield makes no attempt, in the nine (largely familiar) songs to impersonate Piaf's tremulous gargle, but instead concentrates on a meaningful reading of the excellent English lyrics which in themselves offer little pleasures in their internal rhymes and unlikely metre. Her version of "Milord" is outstanding.
The Brecht songs are equally well, if not better, performed. The dozen on offer are the usual Weill/Eisler suspects, derived from Brecht's musical plays, but no less welcome as a result. Mansfield brings the necessary hard edge as well as a sentimental side to the familiar jerky melodies, the words (also in excellent translations) being a priority. "Mack the Knife" (which opens this half of the set) is performed in what can only be described as a sinister growl and prowl round the piano. It was a joy to behold, as was Surabaya Johnny and Alabama Song
If one was to be in the least critical, I'd suggest more movement from the performer would have been an advantage. As a trained dancer, Mansfield is a natural mover, and shaking a leg or two at appropriate moments would not have gone amiss. Otherwise, a glorious evening for lovers of this type of entertainment.
- Stephen Gilchrist (reviewed at Greenwich Theatre)