3 December 2008 (Wed), West End
This show was not a true musical but a biographical play with songs, all sung by the leading character in the context of performances or concerts. It told the story of the singer’s life from her street years to her lonely death. Given Piaf’s self-destructive personality, this could make for a pretty depressing story, as I understand was the case with the movie. But here it was a wild, rapid-fire portrayal of key incidents in the main character’s life, making for an impressionistic picture of the singer’s eventful life. Piaf was a gutter child, and there’s no skimping on the random sex, raw language, alcohol, drugs and some pretty disagreeable character flaws. I can’t say I came to like her, and the show doesn’t dig deep enough to round out the portrait with any measure of sympathy or understanding. At best, I admired her fire and her perseverance, though I did feel sorry for her just a bit for not having enough strength to dig herself out in the end. There were other interesting characters, especially Piaf’s fat and loose friend from her poor days. Everything in the show, though, revolved around Piaf, so that was the character that mattered.
That character met her match in the furious title performance by Elena Rogers, the Argentinean actress who made such a splash in the West End Evita. She came on like a gale force, never letting the energy level drop through the very end. Piaf is a low, lewd and selfish character, not exactly someone you’d want to take home to mother – or, more to the point, even a part you’d want to act in front of your mother. Rogers played her with uncompromising directness in an overwhelming performance. It was an unbelievably committed portrayal. Moreover, she did a spectacular job with Piaf’s songs, belting them out with sheer abandon. I seriously wondered at one point whether they were piping in Piaf herself. The songs were all in the original French with no surtitles, which was frustrating – I would have appreciated knowing what she was singing about – but fascinating, since it kept me focused on the actress’ vocal virtuosity. For her sheer bravery, this is one of the most memorable performances I have seen anywhere.
There were impressive performances as well by her fat colleague from her prostitute days and a black boxer with an amazing body, and the cast in general was quite good. (It was also the tallest cast I’ve seen since the Harlem Globetrotters.) The staging, spare in terms of props, was fast paced and uncluttered, perfect for this small-scale show.
I don’t feel compelled to sit through the show again, but I will remember Elena Rogers. If she could dance, she’d be a perfect Anita in West Side Story. I’m keeping my eyes on her.