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Review Round-up: Is Roger Rough Enough for Piaf?

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The 30th anniversary revival of Pam Gem’s 1978 bio-play Piaf starring Argentine actress Elena Roger as the French icon Edith Piaf opened at the Donmar Warehouse on Wednesday (13 August, previews from 7 August), where it has a limited – already sold-out - run until 20 September 2008.

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.

  • Michael Coveney on Whatsonstage.com (four stars) – “Having so magnificently made the title role in Evita her own, it was only too inevitable that the Argentinian whirlwind Elena Roger would follow in Elaine Paige’s 1993 footsteps as Edith Piaf. But, guess what: she makes this role … entirely her own, too. And, what’s more, she sings it in French … Gems’ play is deceptively skinny … Jamie Lloyd’s Donmar version, so fast it’s almost over before it starts (90 minutes, straight through), has a luminous snapshot quality … No one has quite suggested the mixture of brittle fragility and mysterious power that Roger projects: it really is incredible that such a big sound comes from such a tiny body. And because she’s learned the songs in French, her articulation is perfect … Gems’ play … lets you experience the rapidly self-consuming fire of a great talent, flickering like a moth in the spotlight. And when Roger gives it everything plus extra in ‘Je ne regrette rien’, there’s only one place for the audience to go: up on its feet.”

  • Michael Billington in the Guardian (three stars) – “Pam Gems\' play remains a rickety star-vehicle. What matters, essentially, is the calibre of the star … Now the title role is taken by the diminutive Argentinian Elena Roger, who outdoes her overpraised Evita to become, astonishingly, the living embodiment of Piaf. The play itself is a sketchy affair. It whisks us briskly through Piaf\'s origins as a street singer (and walker) in 1930s Belleville in Paris, and shows her shoot rapidly to stardom … What Roger brings to the role, however, is a furious energy and the orphaned quality of stardom. And, even if Gems\' Piaf doesn\'t change much, Roger invests the role with her own physical dynamic … Roger\'s trump card is that she sings as well as she acts. Each number is delivered with the right dramatic gesture so that … It is a tremendous performance, buttressed by Jamie Lloyd\'s production which punctuates Gems\' snapshot scenes with the exaggerated click of a camera shutter … But, if there was an instant standing ovation, it was for Roger\'s triumphant performance rather than the play.”

  • Charles Spencer in the Daily Telegraph – “It\'s disappointing to see the Donmar Warehouse opting for such a second-rate piece of work ... Gems has revised and cut her original play to a brisk 90 minutes. This means almost none of the supporting cast … come into sharp focus. The writing is often depressingly trite ... Perhaps it makes more sense to look at the piece as an opportunity for a great star turn rather than a properly constructed play, and after her knock-\'em-dead triumph in Evita, hopes were high for the Argentine actress Elena Roger as Piaf. But though she received the inevitable first-night standing ovation, this struck me as a worryingly superficial performance. What\'s missing is any sense that this is a performance dragged from the actress\' guts. Roger shares Piaf\'s diminutive stature, and she is by turns imperious, petulant, fiery and vulnerable, but I never felt as though I was being vouchsafed a glimpse into the singer\'s soul … In short, though undoubtedly technically proficient, Roger never wrung my heart. And though she sings with undeniable power, her delivery … lacks that sublime mixture of the melancholy and the jaunty that made Piaf so great … This clapped-out star vehicle strikes me as a serious disappointment.”

  • Paul Callan in the Daily Express (four stars)– “The Little Sparrow came back to fluttery life last night in the remarkable sound and form of the actress and singer Elena Roger in a stunning performance of a show that literally brings tears to the eyes. This is probably the most outstanding single performance I have seen this year, and this tiny actress literally became Piaf from the moment she walked on to the stage, frail and birdlike but full of heart-tugging power … The play … is 30 years old and is a greatly welcome revival … Although jerky at times in the earlier scenes, Roger guides her spellbound audience through her many boulevards of sadness. Her voice sounds remarkably like La Piaf herself.”

  • Paul Taylor in the Independent (two stars)– \"Roger is a force of nature and then some. She oxygenates a stage … So it is sad to say that I found her portrayal of Edith Piaf in Pam Gems\' play eerily unmoving. The piece, let it be said, has not aged well, even reworked as here. It\'s one of those dramas that show you the difference between the diva as icon and the diva as person … I do suggest that it ill-behoves a drama about the exploitation of this chanteuse to appear to be hitching a lift on her plight, as Gems\' crass, cliché-clogged piece does. Piaf sang as though her life depended on it. Roger sings as though her lungs depend on it. Her delivery is huge and gutsy but it does not sound from the gut. Watching her in Jamie Lloyd\'s punchy, proscenium-arched production, I kept thinking of computer-generated images and how they annihilate any sense of real odds being overcome. Roger keeps her accent surrounded by a bevy of handsome men who speak in English tones and have to cope with the story being told at such breakneck, Idiots-guide speed that it allows none of them the time to establish much sense of identity.”

  • Johann Hari in the Evening Standard (four stars) – “In Jamie Lloyd\'s bare, low-tech production - on a black, brick stage - the romance is stripped away as surely as her clothes: she is an addict with great lungs … Before I saw this production, Elena Roger seemed odd casting as Piaf: an Argentinian as the most iconic Frenchwoman of the 20th century? She was great as Evita - but this? From her first moments at the microphone, every doubt evaporates. She has folded herself into Edith Piaf so perfectly you cannot see the join. She might be smaller than ET but her voice is like her subject\'s: vast and bitter and irresistible. For nearly two hours, she is Piaf. She crashes through life with only The Voice as armour - a singing car crash, skidding on booze and opiates. As Edith destroys herself, Roger\'s body shrivels, and her voice grows … When Rogers ends the show inevitably singing ‘Je ne regrette rien’ with pitch-perfect pain, it seems less like an act of defiance - and more like a grasping, ironic anthem to denial.”

  • Benedict Nightingale in The Times (four stars) – “Pam Gems’ salute to the embattled life and feisty yet poignant art of Edith Piaf is sketchy, even scrappy, but then a neat, smooth play would hardly suit its defiantly unneat and unsmooth heroine … Such objections dwindle to cavils, given the quality that the Argentine actress Elena Roger brings to the role of the little sparrow with the big vibrato. Roger … comes across as a diminutive street bird who somehow manages to survive and even flourish in a world of killer cats. She exudes vulnerability yet bravado, natural warmth and generosity yet a necessary toughness. To see the sickly, ageing Piaf totter … to pelt out the inevitable ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’ … is to feel you’re seeing the last throes of the singer herself. Does it matter that she speaks in a foreign accent while the other Parisians sound all-English? Not at all. Could she be brasher, cruder, more vulgar? Maybe, a bit … Yet you don’t doubt that she was born and bred in the gutter and never forgot the fact or betrayed her origins … To hear Roger singing ‘La vie en rose’ with Katherine Kingsley’s rangy Marlene Dietrich, or even drolly delivering the mawkish ‘Jimmy Brown’ … is to feel that the sparrow has been reborn in Seven Dials.

  • Patrick Marmion in the Daily Mail – “The Donmar Warehouse strikes gold more often than Michael Phelps. So here comes another hit, already sold out and fully toned up for a West End transfer. It\'s a revival of Pam Gems\' hymn to the Parisian chanteuse Edith Piaf - the Little Sparrow … It\'s not too adventurous, but it is soundly entertaining. The play hinges on great casting in the title role and in Elena Roger they may have found someone who seems genetically destined to play the part of the tiny, gutsy street hooker turned cabaret singer. Piaf boasted that she was born on a pavement … and her voice certainly puts the gutter into guttural. The rest of her life was scarcely less chaotic … Pam Gems\' reworking of her play 30 years after it premiered at the RSC sheds some of the chaotic biographical detail to create a more fluid narrative … There is some question whether Elena Roger is really rough enough. Despite throwing herself into Piaf\'s cruel, sexually voracious persona, her speaking voice hasn\'t seen enough Gauloises … Roger has Piaf\'s Chaplinesque waddle, and as her final rendition of \'Non, je ne regrette rien\' shows, she can match the mellifluous sewer of Piaf\'s singing voice.”

    - by Kate Jackson

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