Curve director Paul Kerryson has made something of a speciality out of his magic touch with musicals. In the big space of the main house he has presented blockbusters including 42nd Street, The King and I and Hello Dolly!. But the intimacy of the venue’s studio theatre and the claustrophobic smallness of Pam Gems’s 1978 play-with-music about the Little Sparrow are a different matter altogether.

Fortunately for all concerned, Kerryson completely ignores the confines of both the space and the material and gives us another spectacular show, all the more powerful for being up close and (very) personal.

Simon Scullion’s set design is all Parisian walkways, dark corners and atmospheric moodiness, aided by some subtle and effective lighting (Arnim Friess) and elegant costumes (Siobhan Boyd).

The supporting cast of eight throng the tight space in a multitude of characters, rushing through the Piaf biography in an episodic, ramshackle race from childhood poverty to drug-dependent stardom. They may not have much to work with in a succession of short, snappy scenes, but they do it in fine style.

Equally important are the superb band of just three – accordionist, percussionist and musical director/pianist Ben Atkinson – who render the songs musically as soulful, mournful and deeply emotional.

But there’s no doubting who this show really belongs to. And it’s not – despite the best efforts of its author to present a flawed, sympathetic genius – Piaf herself. It’s Frances Ruffelle, the diminutive, extraordinarily-voiced actress who barely leaves the stage for two-and-a-half long hours, ravaging her voice and body in the representation of this French icon.

Piaf’s tale is grim, gritty and pretty sordid, and Gems gives us every unpleasant detail in full focus. In the end, she emerges as selfish, amoral and reckless to the point of self-destruction – hardly sympathetic. But in Ruffelle’s supremely controlled vocal performance, there is genius in abundance, and it’s her delivery of the haunting, impassioned songs that strikes the real note of emotional truth that Piaf herself was apparently so desperate to convey.

A tour de force, she heads a production that looks and sounds both powerful and bleak, and is not for the faint-hearted.

- Michael Davies

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