The applause comes before curtain up, so to speak, as Piaf emerges from the cold white lamplight on a cobbled Paris pavement, spitting and peeing into the gutter from which she notoriously came. She clearly has her fans, as does Anna-Jane Casey, last seen at the Crucible in the hit musical Sweet Charity.
Rather than ‘Frenchifying’ her appearance or behaviour, Casey's interpretation of this 'kid sparrow' is a stray lass with a Yorkshire accent and a soiled rag for a dress. F'ing and blinding her way through a tough start on the street she introduces us to the breathlessly condensed musical biography of Edith Giovanna Gassion.
Next we fast-forward through her earlier life, and brief motherhood, to the chance encounter with impresario Louis Leplée where her rendition of "Les deux ménétriers" gets her noticed. She is scooped up, away from her father to perform at Leplée's exclusive club and very quickly spat out after his murder. From there, countless lovers come and go, the audience barely given a chance to take in their names in the confusion, until we get to Marcel Cerdan, the boxer and love of her life.
It's a whirlwind ride through this chanteuse's extraordinary experiences. Timothy Sheader's direction is frenetic and between the design and lighting, a monochrome set provides the backdrop for Piaf's performances through "Padam...Padam", "La Vie en Rose", to the glorious signature tune of "Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien". Casey effortlessly manages the distinctive register and tonality of her voice, sometimes even with that famous tartness at the edge.
Casey gives us a Piaf whose persistent black dresses, tragedies, tantrums and vulgar sense of humour, are all accentuated by the symbolic trajectory of her success. This is nicely illustrated with a moving spotlight - sometimes a diamond shaft of light swells around her, sometimes it moves off casting a portentous shadow, cleverly dwarfing her as she becomes crippled with addiction.
This is a one-woman show. In fact only four men are cast to play all of the men in her life, as well as her friend Marlene Dietrich. Piaf was astute enough to choose her lyricists wisely, to the point where the songs were so autobiographical they became inappropriate for anyone else and here they are used as such. Dotted between aspects of her personal life, they illustrate the emotional force behind her frailty. Ultimately though this musical works best with that prior knowledge.
- Dawn Jessop