Review: PIAF, Charing Cross Theatre, December 4 2015

By: Dec. 05, 2015

It is no surprise to discover that Piaf (continuing at the Charing Cross Theatre until 2 January) has garnered its fair share of awards since its premiere in 1978. It has all the attributes that those who decide on such matters value: a real-life story that is stranger than fiction; an outpouring of emotion; and a central performance that brings an icon back to life before our very eyes. This production shares the pros and cons of many Oscar-laden Hollywood biopics and will attract an audience as a result.

We first meet Piaf as she collapses on stage, so tiny that she is barely visible behind the mic stand, a little sparrow broken. The play tells the tale of how she rose from the streets and brothels of Paris, survived The Occupation, became not just the "national singer" of France, but almost France's way of explaining France to itself after the trauma of war and then dies, aged 47, addicted to alcohol, drugs and sex.

Much of that tale is somewhat squalid - inter-war Paris never seemed to acquire the sheen of decadent glamour that the Weimar Republic (or, indeed, late 19th century Paris) so effortlessly projected - and there's plenty for the armchair psychologists to analyse, as Piaf pisses off everyone close to her, the better to avoid the commitment she both craves and fears.

There's good work from the supporting cast of musician actors, but, as the title baldly states, this play is about one person and it will stand or fall on the actor's interpretation of that role. Cameron Leigh, all elbows and bony shoulders and a cowboy's walk, gets the rasping laugh and the screeching anger dead right. She also suggests (and what hard work it must be to do, as it's certainly quite hard work to watch) the sense that Piaf was teetering on the edge of a nervous breakdown for much of her life, the pills and booze hardly helping a damaged personality.

Good so far, but Piaf the woman and Piaf the show is really all about the voice. And Leigh delivers in a frighteningly evocative way, the chansons belted out in tones at once rich and vulnerable. Though amplified, I fear for the stress such singing must put on the vocal cords as there are no half measures at all - again, the pleasure and pain theme comes through even here! We get 15 songs in total sung by "Piaf" and every one is a showstopper (once the house settles, they do applaud them all) with favourites like Milord, Mon Dieu and La Vie en Rose and, naturally, a valedictory Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien bien sur. It is in these songs that the show (as was the case for the life) soars, the art transcending the misery, the immortality justified.

That Leigh gives Piaf her voice some 50 years after her death at exactly the time when Paris needs to articulate its pain and its defiance is a testament to a fine portrayal of a woman who gave pleasure to so many but was never at ease herself - and some might say the same of Paris itself just now.