Pam Gems' bio-documentary-with-music on the life of the French chanteuse extraordinaire was first staged back in 1978 with considerable success and acclaim, and has been revived fairly regularly ever since but not in the north west for some time, so it is an understandable choice for the Octagon's end of season, usually musical, slot.
The play itself never was and still isn't a great work of art but it is standing up to the test of time surprisingly well.
The script follows the little sparrow's life story from growing up in a brothel and then the gutter to becoming the world's highest-paid female singing star and on to morphine addiction, taking in her work with the French Resistance during the war and detailing her sexual needs with the many and varied men in her life.
It's something of a play of two halves, with the first particularly bitty, as it rattles on from one short encounter to the next, while the second – though here again the supporting characters continue to be under-written – gathers more depth with longer scenes and more emotion.
Unless you've studied Piaf's life recently, you'll need the crib provided by the programme to sort out just who is whom as Gems gives few clues in many cases.
Directed by Elizabeth Newman, the Octagon production has a decent ensemble cast and a Piaf, in Caroline Faber, who delivers the songs with conviction and in the requisite style. She isn't as strong in the dialogue scenes however and I was never totally convinced, partly because she is physically too robust to suggest the petite vulnerability that was such an essential of the Piaf magic. But it's a huge ask for any actress and she does give it a very good shot.
Some of the early scenes here are too sloppy, with over-zealous physical action resulting in lost lines and some of the later scenes are boringly slow, much of that tedium the fault of the script but the director ought to have a stronger grip here. We emerged at around 22.10, which was at least ten minutes later than we should have.
- Alan Hulme