Roger made her West End debut in 2006 playing another 20th-century female icon, fellow Argentine Eva Peron, in Andrew Lloyd Webber and Tim Rice’s Evita, directed at the Adelphi Theatre by Donmar artistic director Michael Grandage, whose associate at the time, Jamie Lloyd, now helms Piaf.
Piaf was born in Paris in December 1919 and – after a short tragic life, scarred by abandonment, drink and drugs addiction – she died on 10 October 1963, aged just 43. She is best remembered for her torch song classics including “La vie en rose” – which provided the title for the recent Oscar-winning movie about her life – “Milord”, “Hyme a l’amour” and “Non, je ne regrette rien”, which Roger sings in French in the stage show.
Gems’ play was first staged by the Royal Shakespeare Company at the same address (pre-Donmar days, when the space was known as the Warehouse), starring Jane Lapotaire in the title role, and revived in the West End in 1993 with Elaine Paige (who, coincidentally, also preceded Elena Roger in the Peron role). In the new Donmar production, Roger is joined in the cast by Shane Attwooll, Phillip Browne, Lorraine Bruce, Luke Evans, Michael Hadley, Katherine Kingsley, Leon Lopez and Steve John Shepherd.
Given the view that Gems’ play is very much a “star-vehicle”, critics were keen to see how Elena Roger fared this time round, particularly after heaping praise on her for her previous titular turn in Evita. Most praised Roger’s abilities to “fold herself into Edith Piaf” with a “furious energy”, and many also pointed out that her stature and vocal power made her “genetically destined to play the part”. However, some felt that, though technically perfect, Roger’s performance was “eerily unmoving” and unable to wrench the heart strings.
- by Kate Jackson