Exciting theatre should be anything but immutable and, au contraire to the rather pessimistic French saying of plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose (the more things change, the more they stay the same), this mercurial Nottingham Playhouse production of Piaf positively rings the changes. This sterling production of Piaf benefits from being a vocal triumph as well as a visually imposing eyeful with some towering performances. This reviewer now draws a firm line under the increasing quantity of Parisian puns used in the first paragraph by omitting to say – it’s totally insane. Ooops. Dommage. Trop tard.
With Nottingham Playhouse’ bold main stage production of Pam Gems’ Piaf director Adam Penford cleverly fine-tunes and part redefines the known theatrical forms of the original play which is written as a series of short dramatic vignettes, selectively interspersed with Piaf’s popular songs. Being an intimate dramatic work Piaf is often played in a smaller studio space. Not here. Nottingham Playhouse has gone plus grand with this one. An onstage bio, with added brio, you might say.
Bringing Piaf to the main stage has the effect of doubly dramatizing the phenomenal – gutter trash to world fame – life of the tiny French street-singing chanteuse Edith Gassion who became known as La Môme Piaf – the little sparrow. This Nottingham Playhouse audience love it, naughty language and all. They laugh. They choke back their tears. They keep their ‘socially distanced’ paper handkerchief to themselves. Impressively conceived, and played with style and ballsy vigour, the end result is very impressive. For those who speak French – Le spectacle est très impressionnant.
Penford takes Pam Gems’ gritty and often humorous play and makes it more of an ensemble piece than previously seen. These new directional choices are both in the action and stylised movement, and, being creative with the text and occasional re-allocation of the songs throughout. With his theatrical vision and intelligent application, Penford’s fine adjustments create a very laudable balance that redefines Pam Gems’ play with songs and, thankfully, his creative team resist turning it into a faux musical. Gareth Valentine is musical director, arranger and orchestrator and his superb work complements Penford’s direction, and the players’ musicianship and vocal harmonies perfectly.
The staging benefits from the height of the Nottingham Playhouse main house stage and Frankie Bradshaw’s economic set design of elevated gantries, dominated by a giant PIAF sign, allows the cast of nine actor- musicians to utilise and exploit the elevations with visual élan. The Playhouse production makes good use of the full stage floor space as the swift moving play requires very quick scene changes. Many of the venues in Piaf’s life are visually suggested with minimal stage props and furniture. The atmospheric lighting design is fashioned by Jack Knowles and the impressive Piaf sound design is created with aural panache by Ella Wahlstrōm.
The nine-strong cast includes Jenna Russell, Sally Ann Triplett, Laura Pitt- Pulford, Garry Robson, Joseph Prowen, Matthew Woodyatt, Samuel James, Louis Gaunt and Zheng Xi Yong. Russell and Triplett play single characters whilst the rest of the cast double or triple to invigorate and populate this theatrical telling of the story of Edith Piaf.
Jenna Russell is truly magnifique as Edith Piaf. This is a dream role for many an actress and Russell pulls it off perfectly making her very own Edith Piaf come totally alive on stage, running, as she does, a gamut of emotions through acting and song. Additionally, her Piaf is very likable in moments of comedy, apparent insouciance and even when she’s desperately unhappy, bad tempered and super f*cking sweary. Russell oozes confidence as she delivers her songs both in French and English and the hand gesticulations and impassioned haunted face and singer poses are classic Piaf. As world renowned chanteuse Piaf herself says (in the play) of one of her major accomplishments in the world of cabaret performances. “I sang 30 songs in the Carnegie Hall. They applauded for 20 minutes. That’s a long time.”
Sally Ann Triplett is sturdily engaging as Toine, Piaf’s brash but vulnerable friend from les gouttiérs de Belleville and 1940s Paris brothels. Toine is at once very common and opportunistic for a fast sous or trois and is later betrayed and somewhat reconciled as their friendship dips and falters in Piaf’s drug dependent years and close to her untimely death. Triplett plays her as if her life depends on it and her portrayal is one of the truest on stage.
Piaf: What did we do after that?
Toine: Forget – oh yeah, I remember. You tried to slash your wrists. (to Theo) I was so legless I nearly let her.
Piaf: It’s a pity you didn’t.
Garry Robson (Louis Leplée/butcher/Vaimber), Louis Gaunt (Marcel Cerdan/Theo Sarapo) and Matthew Woodyat (Raymond/Charles Aznavour) stand out in the male cast and are well supported by the entire actor-muso ensemble. Robson has a mellow singing voice as he proves in the beautiful song, Autumn Leaves. Gareth Valentine adds high quality live piano to the piece. The choral pieces from the cast are spine tinglingly good.
Laura Pitt-Pullford is a class act as a smart, artistically savvy and successful film star and cabaret singer Marlene Dietrich and as Piaf’s time-abused paid help Madeleine and Eddie.
One of the first act highlights of Piaf comes from the choreography of the boxing match scene and the decision to have Russell’s Piaf singing Mon Dieu in the background during the match and at the dramatic and catastrophic end of act one. It is a knock out coup de théâtre.
Included in the play are live songs such as La Goualante du Pauvre Jean, Les Momes de la Cloche, Autumn Leaves, La Ville Inconnue, Tu Me Fais Tourner La Tête, L’Accordeoniste, Milord, La Vie en Rose, Mon Dieu, Si Tu Partais, Les Trois Cloche, Deep in the Heart of Texas, Bravo Pour Le Clown, Plus Bleu Que Tes Yeux, Hymne a L’Amour, A Quoi ca Sert, L’Amour and of course Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.
Piaf at Nottingham Playhouse is a tour de force from the entire cast and creatives and you would ‘regret nothing’ if you booked to see this fantastique production. Allons Y!
Piaf runs at Nottingham Playhouse until Saturday 17th July with a Live Streaming performance on 14th July. The shared production then moves on to Leeds Playhouse 23rd July – 7th August.
*review based on 5th July 2021 preview performance.
Piaf production images by Marc Brenner.