Director Jari Laakso presents Pam Gem’s 1978 play about the tumultuous life of beloved French diva Edith Piaf, with a commendable cast and live music.
Samantha Spurgin must be highly congratulated on her colourful and assured performance as Edith Piaf who, by all accounts, was a fiery, crude and irreverent brat who never quite lost the spark that street life gave her. The stiff, masculine gait, the brashness, the selfishness, the street savviness are all present in Spurgin’s portrayal. Though her French accent is not always convincing, at times Spurgin’s ability to mimic the quacking, slack-jawed Parisien French is uncanny. Nonetheless, her pitch-perfect renditions of Piaf’s timeless songs cannot be overlooked. When she belts out ‘Mon Dieu’ with tears streaming down her face, it is a beautiful moment.
Piaf had a dramatic life, not to mention a huge back catalogue of songs: a goldmine for popular culture representations of her career. It feels as though Piaf attempts to tackle too many of these events, and many unnecessary songs are crammed in at the expense of character and relationship development. Though Piaf refers to Louis Leplée — the club owner who gave her her first break — as ‘Papa’, the surrogate father-daughter relationship that the two had in reality is never fleshed out in the writing, rendering Leplée’s eventual death falling short of its potential power.
Post-interval, however, songs become less frequent and the play takes a welcome turn towards a greater depth. The second half runs at a much slower pace than the first, which invites a greater connection between the audience and the characters as we witness Piaf’s slow demise. It is just as well, as the two car crashes, subsequent drug addiction, and the fated ‘suicide tour’ that eventually saw her off are anything but trivial.
Overall, Piaf’s life will always make for compelling viewing, but in the retelling of a story so tragic, it should be quality over quantity. A greater focus on only the very key events and songs would have given the show more emotional profundity; however, Spurgin is an excellent Piaf, and co-star Stephanie Merulla an equally convincing Toine. Ensemble cast Daniel Jeary, Kristof Kane, Olivia Thompson and Maxime Yelle all give sensitive and nuanced performances as various members of Piaf’s entourage, and the live pianist adds an extra dynamic layer. A mixed bag, but ultimately a good watch.
Piaf played at The Warren as part of the Brighton Fringe. For more information, see the Brighton Fringe website.