Archive review: Piaf. Curve. 2013.

Archive review from a previous theatre blog

My first ever review (of sorts) and first time at Curve.

March 1st 2013

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Piaf. a review.


“Mesmerising, I never wanted the music to stop.” Phil Lowe


The first time I saw Pam Gems play ‘Piaf’ was at the Derby Playhouse in 1982. The original play had opened in February 1978, at the RSC’s  Other Place in Stratford on Avon. It transferred to the Donmar Warehouse; and from there to the Aldwych, Wyndam’s and the Piccadilly theatre in the West End. Jane Lapotaire  won the Tony award for her performance of Piaf on Broadway.

In the Derby Playhouse production, a young, relatively unknown actress called Caroline Quentin, played Edith Piaf and was stunningly good. Further in her career Quentin went on to be part of the ensemble of the musical Les Misérables, and played a prostitute in the original production . Based on those theatrical memories and that of seeing Frances Ruffelle as Eponine way back then, I went to Leicester’s Curvetheatre to see Frances Ruffelle as Edith Gassion (Piaf).

This gripping and entertaining drama is performed at the Curve studio space with an ensemble cast playing many and various roles of characters that came and went into Piaf’s dramatic, difficult and often lonely life. Piaf couldn’t bear to be alone especially after her concerts about which she said: ‘The audience is so warm down there in that black hole. It’s as though all those people are taking you in their arms, opening their hearts to you and taking you in. You overflow with their love, and they overflow with love for you. They want you to give yourself to them, you sing, you shout, you scream your pleasure, you’re beside yourself with happiness.’

The world outside the stage door, for her, was often filled with exploitation and abuse from men. Yet through this life drama she had a great spirit, a naughty sense of fun and a voice full of raw emotion and power. She touched the hearts of millions and when she died from liver cancer in 1963 over one hundred thousand Parisians followed her coffin to its final resting place.

At Curve, Frances Ruffelle brilliantly charges her theatrical portrayal of Edith Piaf with energy, fun, grittiness, pathetic vulnerability coupled with a determined stubborn toughness as the character struggles to carry on and on during the crazy circus of her short life. Ruffelle’s singing  nine songs both in English and in well articulated French is brilliantly done. She gestures as Piaf but gives the part something extra special – creating a real live gutsy raw character you really care about despite her massive mood swings and drug abuse. She is especially magnificent during her scenes of terrible despair, caught in a circle of cold harsh light scrabbling on her knees on the street cobbles racked with desperate sadness. The final scenes with Theo, her last, calm and caring lover, are very moving. She is on stage for the entire play and runs the gamut of dramatic emotions.

Including Frances Ruffelle there are nine actors in this company. All are terrific as they morph from one character into another and execute some extraordinarily quick scene changes. I particularly like Laura Pitt-Pulford as Toine in her portrayal of Edith’s prostitute friend through various stages of her life.  You sense the ageing and growing bitterness and sadness of the character. Tiffany Graves as Marlene and the two nurses is wonderfully different in each role and Oliver Boot is perfectly cast as the tender boxer Marcel. This is ensemble acting at it’s best as each character portrayed by the other male actors is clearly defined, regardless of the longevity of the role on stage, and each and every one are totally believable.

The set design of a brick railway arch, framed within a frame and a sweeping black curtain creates the tawdry atmosphere for the many scene changes as the audience’s experience flickers back and forth through the late Pam Gem’s play of Piaf’s life. All is angular and smoky. The staging has  terrific lighting and sound. With three live musicians, pianist, accordionist and drummer the stage is set for a wonderful time at the theatre. Paul Kerryson’s direction is exemplary.

This is the first production I have seen at the Curve and I will certainly be going back again. The production runs until March 16th.

Production images Pamela Raith

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