Piaf’s is an extraordinary and intriguing tale, and Mike Lees’ dark stage design, fringed with its sumptuous red velvet curtain, is beautifully simple. Situated in a pleasantly large space upstairs in this East London pub, the set is as at home with the Little Sparrow’s humble beginnings as it is with the dramatic twists and turns her life takes as she embarks on the rocky road to stardom.
The play starts as it ends, with a visibly ailing Piaf staggering to the microphone and beginning a bold musical rendition, only to be brought to an abrupt halt and forcibly removed, cursing all the way. The ability to condense a life as complex and chequered as this into just two hours is the mark of a clever playwright and the late Pam Gems deserves huge credit; this is a rollercoaster of highs and lows and light and dark moments, skilfully strung together with a series of lovers, husbands and hangers-on who flit in and out of the action, shaping the course of fateful events.
Lisa Baird takes the title role. She is sufficiently bird-like in stature and bears more than a passing facial resemblance to the unlikely diva; however, this was a fascinating and beguiling character of many contrasts and although the portrayal is at times strong, the handling of this multi-faceted and complex woman is somewhat inconsistent.
Whilst Baird’s singing voice is technically excellent, her delivery sometimes lacks the necessary defiance and raw earthiness. Her cockney accent serves well to render a hard bitten piece who has had a difficult start in life, but the frequent chopping and changing from this to hints of received pronunciation which would be more at home on the set of Hollyoaks than the grimy back streets of France is confusing and jars terribly.
Baird does, however, warm up, admirably handling Piaf’s rise to fame with the accompanying petulance, paranoia and inability to be alone and the drug and alcohol addiction which ultimately kill her. "Non, je ne regrette rien" is delivered to a captive audience with renewed, requisite conviction.
The remaining players provide steady support throughout and Aaron Clingham’s tight musical direction and accompaniment is a delight.
- Helen Macdonald