Written by Pam Gems, Piaf has been described as a biographical drama with music. The original production staring Jane Lapotaire in the title role, premiered in 1978 at the Royal Shakespeare theatre transferring to various theatres in the West End before opening on Broadway in 1981; where Lapotaire went on to win the Tony award for best actress in a musical.
In 2021 Director Adam Penford brings a new production of Piaf to Nottingham and Leeds Playhouse theatres. This quick paced, witty, and gritty play, spans Piaf’s teenage life until her death at the age of 47. Frankie Bradshaw’s minimal set comprising of metal stairways and platforms combine perfectly with Jack Knowles neon lighting to transport the viewer from the streets of Paris to the concert halls of New York. Musical director Gareth Valentine is on stage throughout the production playing the piano magnificently. He is joined by members of this talented cast who play a variety of instruments on stage, to create the music and atmosphere associated with Chanson.
One of the memorable scenes for me was the portrayal of a boxing match involving Piaf’s lover Marcel Cerdan, choreographed to perfection by movement director Georgina Lamb. There is wonderful chemistry on stage between real life friends Sally Ann Triplett (Toine) and Jenna Russell as Piaf. I am an admirer of Russell as a performer, her rendition of ‘Days and Days’ in the Old Vic’s production of Fun Home is one of my personal favourites by an actress in a musical. Singing in English and French, Russell’s beautiful voice soared through the auditorium. However, when she sang in French, for me she became the Piaf whose voice and work I have enjoyed for many years.
The final number of the show ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien‘, for me was the highlight of the show. Dressed in the trademark black dress, a solitary figure in a single spotlight, Russell tore at my heartstrings as each word she sang was full of emotion and power. With well-known songs, a talented cast, and a very strong performance by Jenna Russell in the lead role, Piaf is an interesting and powerful portrayal of a women who was at her height of fame as the highest paid female entertainer in the world.
This was my first visit to a theatre since March 2020, and my first visit to the Nottingham Playhouse. Staff were very informative and friendly regarding how to access the theatre in line with the COVID regulations that were in place at the time. Hand gel was available throughout the theatre, and I felt safe and confident. The wearing of a face mask throughout the production did not for me take away any of the joy I felt at being back in a theatre again.
Piaf is currently at Leeds Playhouse from 28th July to 7th August.
Theatretastic rating 4/5
We say: “Piaf is an interesting and powerful portrayal – Russell tore at my heartstrings as each word she sang was full of emotion and power!”