Piaf by Pam Gems, Donmar, London

  AUGUST 2008  
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There is something fascinating about fatal crashes. Necks strain to catch a glimpse of gore, vicariously to experience the moment of loss and extreme pain, to shudder at how close we are to sudden, unexpected mortality. Whether a spiralling jet plane or a mangled high speed car, a Grand Prix collision or a parachute failing to open, all attract our undivided attention as our hearts race and our imaginations race even faster, anticipating the moment when the momentum of life meets the immovable wall of death.

It's the same with our celebrities. We watch them like expectant vultures. We gasp in awe and wonder as a diminutive, talented female singer, who desperately balances fame and drugs and alcohol and love, personifies her own fatal car crash. Lovers may come and go, photos of drunken fights with paparazzi outside near-dawn nightclubs might hit the news-stands, and still we strain our necks to glimpse this celebrity gore in vivid, bloody detail.

Perhaps it is our voyeuristic attitude to the cult of celebrity which makes Pam Gems's famous 1979 play, Piaf, so compelling. The Donmar has revived and revitalized this tragic tale of talent and utter decay. The result, a play which combines the emotionally-charged music of Edith Piaf with a biographical narrative which beggars belief. Piaf's life story, at least that much of it she and her managers presented to her public, is a catalogue of prostitution, sexual gratification, fatally-flawed love affairs, murder, war, drink, drugs, car crashes and utter, utter emotional decay.

The Donmar Piaf captures each devastating moment of Piaf's gloriously seedy career with the visual precision of a Pathé News-Reel. This realism is undoubtedly due to the design concept of Soutra Gilmour and the impeccable direction of Jamie Lloyd. Gilmour has transformed the Donmar into part Parisian cobbled street, part expansive forestage of a black painted, run-down French music hall, complete with ornate proscenium arch and blood-red theatre curtains which tumble at decisive moments in Piaf's life.

The lighting design of Neil Austin adds to the realism of the design concept. At times Piaf might perform in semi-silhouette, her form lit by spotlights invisibly operated high above the rear of the stage. At other times, actors carry industrial-sized lamps onstage, thrusting them blindingly into Piaf's eyes and projecting a giant shadow of the tiny figure on the rear wall. Lastly, the stage-effect conjures the ultimate iconic image of the aged Piaf who, standing in front of her single microphone in little black dress and with short dishevelled hair, is confined within a shaft of white light as she pours her heart and soul into her passionate songs.

A ten-strong cast of actors people Piaf's life. Whether friend and fellow street-walker or gay club owner, whether latest doomed lover or aspiring young entertainer screwing his way to the top, whether post-war heroine Marlene Dietrich or final youthful Greek husband-cum-hairdresser, all are attracted like moths to the light of this French ‘sparrow'. The Donmar cast create an ensemble world which is enthralling in its depth and vitality. All praise to them.

There can, however, be only one star in this particular orbit. That star was Piaf. That star is now Elena Roger. The thirty-three year-old Argentinean actor and singer gives a performance of a lifetime -- Piaf's lifetime. It is not difficult to imagine that this might be Piaf onstage before you. Roger has metamorphosed into the French sparrow. Her voice is Piaf. Her stance and stature is Piaf. Her very talent is as great as Piaf. The production is, in effect, unimaginable without Elena Roger; it is as if Pam Gems had written this play so many years ago just for Elena Roger to don the black dress and address the microphone.

Roger's voice expresses every nuance of the drug- and sex-fuelled passion of Piaf's life. Roger's face, apparently devoid of make-up, her eyes flashing firelight into the audience, emotes the mental pain and rugged determination to survive whilst self-destructing that epitomizes Piaf's art. Elena Roger's performance, under Jamie Lloyd's admirable direction, provides a fitting tribute to this twentieth-century icon. Yet again, the Donmar presents its audience with the very best in old and new writing and talent. Yet again, the Donmar is leading the field in astonishing Brutish theatre. Experience the final Je Ne Regrette Rien and you experience the magic that was Piaf in all her devastating, crash-victim glory.

© Kevin Quarmby, 2008