This is an abbreviated version of the Pam Gems' play that was originally produced by the RSC at Stratford, subsequently transferring to London in a production that starred Jane Lapotaire in the title role.

Under the direction of John Doyle, this new version is slicker, leaner, earthier, and ultimately more poignant than before. Indeed, the trust demonstrated by the leading participants in each other's experience is the reason why the boundaries of emotional melodrama are so successfully transcended, and Josephine Baird indeed proves transcendent in the title role.

As the play charts the fortunes of Edith Piaf (universally to become known as the diminutive sparrow) from poverty to fame and back to poverty again, her life story is traced out. Born in France during the first World War, she became an internationally acclaimed tragedienne chanteuse, and by the time she died in 1963, had left behind a stunning repertoire of unique musical memories, many of which this production revives and recreates.

The play maintains interest and credence by being imaginatively set by Mark Bailey in seedy nightclubs and dressing rooms, with the five-piece band members doubling up (a signature of Doyle's productions) as managers, manics, and malingering maladroits. Happy hooker Toine (Karen Mann) is the only constancy in Piaf's life, but even she gets an undeserved comeuppance from the egotistical singer in her dying moments.

Papa Leplee, Marcel and Pierre (Mike Afford) try to keep Piaf on track and on song, but it's like trying to climb Everest every day. The chanteuse is determinedly profligate, but still induces support and sympathy from her entourage as she falls from the peaks of her brilliance. In their varying guises, Holly Ashton, Michael Howcroft, and Paul Harvard add to the flavour. From euphoria to disgust, they chart a tightrope of razor's edge emotions.

If you'll pardon my French, this play is a "tour-de-force" for both Baird and Doyle, while Sarah Travis's handling of the musical arrangements are adequate compensation for a dearth of humour in the first act.

In the second act, Piaf's life becomes increasingly frenetic on its tragic path. "La Vie En Rose" and "Je Ne Regret Rien" are heartrendingly performed. But above all else, the enduring memory of Piaf is the way in which the fading star, alone in her dressing room, takes us with her into the depths of hell, sharing the pain and glory of her intimate, despairing and despicable end. Baird is an absolute star.

- John Timperley