Review – Piaf with Elena Roger at the Donmar Warehouse

Sunday 10 August 2008

The Whingers waited for what seemed like eons for a mesmerising diva from the Americas to come along only to find themselves treated to two in the same week. And, no, we didn’t make Elaine Stritch this time round.

Who would have thought the Whingers would be swept up by a second stunning star performance within just a few days and – on this occasion – moved to ovate?

With the palms of their hands still raw and wrists uncharacteristically limp from applauding the incredible Lesli Margherita in Zorro, they were swept along by the diminutive Elena Roger as Piaf at the Donmar Warehouse.

Pam Gems has reworked her 1978 play vividly capturing the glamour and squalor, the rise and fall of this complex, fragile and enigmatic performer (it says on the Donmar’s website).

Despite the symbolically crumbling proscenium (presumably built as a sop to the crumbling Whingers) it’s a completely bare stage but despite being atmospherically lit by Neil Austin there is sadly nothing here visually to rival the over-the-top Chinese willy-waving of the Olympic opening ceremony – just a couple of chairs.

Strangely Roger is the only one doing a French accent. The rest of the cast (playing multiple roles) don’t bother which seemed a bit odd. Bizarrely Katherine Kingsley (very tall) plays an American-sounding Marlene Dietrich and only once slips into a German accent. But she wore a suitably glamorous wig so the Whingers let it pass.

Jamie Lloyd‘s direction seems principally to be “full steam ahead” – this is a furiously paced production (and that’s a good thing) with no opportunities given for the audience to applaud the singing.

It’s a wise decision as there’s not much going on in the way of a play in between the little sparrow’s warblings. In fact Pam Gems really hasn’t had to do an awful lot and the Whingers – always on the lookout for a scheme which involves not doing much – might just write their own piece around a singing diva (Jane McDonald possibly), pack it with songs and pass it off as a play. Short sketchy scenes of Piaf’s rise and fall are squeezed in between the mainly dreary (in Phil’s view) French chansons which characterised her repertoire. A little sparrow goes an awful long way. That said, it still gives Roger far more to work with than Evita did.

Roger doesn’t really look like Piaf apart from being almost alarmingly short. She’s too thin in the face but is probably more sparrow-like than Piaf herself. Phil thought her wig was too high and at times was fondly reminded of Anna Raeburn.

But Roger is so compelling the Whingers couldn’t take their eyes off her which is just as well as she’s barely off the stage.

Indeed, this really must be an immensely gruelling role – 95 minutes, no interval – and Roger is always either singing her heart out or acting her socks off or shooting up.

It’s an astonishing performance – one which will go down in the annals of West End theatre history, we predict. There’s even some rather gruesome comedy when she directs a young cowboy hunk through his audition. But she’s never outside of the role looking in – she inhabits Piaf completely so you never feel that she is judging her. Roger also does a tremendous act of ageing throughout the play. Those acting lessons clearly paid off.

And the singing is utterly fantastic. When you consider that the songs are in French it takes some doing to make them compelling and moving (except to people who understand French presumably).

Andrew left the theatre muttering something about a tour de force but it’s the only French he knows so perhaps he was just showing off.


  • We loved Lorraine Bruce as Piaf’s friend Toine! More of her please.
  • It’s sold out already. Day seats only.

7 Responses to “Review – Piaf with Elena Roger at the Donmar Warehouse”

  1. Denis Says:

    Saw this at final preview and was just amazed by Elena Roger. She is fantastic in this: sparky, funny, moving and gutsy. Her singing is not only excellent but her performance of each famous song accurately reflects where Piaf is at each moment of the play. The other characters are ciphers and the play creaks in places but it really doesn’t matter, its all about her. There isn’t a moment where you don’t believe you are in her world or that Roger hasn’t been possessed by the spirit of Piaf. (Lorraine Bruce is corking too; she’s channelling Peggy Mount). Don’t miss this. If Roger doesn’t win an armful of awards then…etc.

  2. James Macky Says:

    I can still recall the brillian Jane Lapotoire and the equally wonderful Zoe Wanamaker in the 1978 production – it too was a bare stage with just a couple of chairs. When Jane, as Piaf, all crooked and bent, ended the play in a towelling robe, saying, “I have been so lucky, so happy” as she clutched her handsome Theo, we were all in floods of tears. So moving, so marvellous – this show sounds just as good! How the theatre repeats itself every generation.

    • susan ellway Says:

      Did anyone see Kathryn Evans in Piaf at Leicester’s Haymarket Theatre years ago? She was amazing “simply was Piaf” as one critic wrote. Also it was a longer play, with interval. I thought the Donmar production was too short, sketchy and can’t think why Pam Gems altered it. Elena Roger was excellent and I expect she will be the Olivier Award for it, though I am hoping for Kathryn in Sunset Boulevard!

  3. J.A. Says:

    Into each generation a Piaf is born…

  4. Paul Says:

    I honestly can’t see what all the fuss is about. Roger’s acting is acceptable, her singing is good but not great. She speaks in a French accent because she can’t successfully do an English one. I am sure she is a lovely person but I’d be buggered if I can see star quality there – and I’ve seen her in three different roles now. As for award winning – I would be very, very surprised.

  5. Frank Gumm Says:

    I agree with Paul. This show is being wildly over-praised. Every time Pam Gems re-writes this show it gets worse. Jane Lapotaire was amazing in a fully-written play. Elaine Page was Elaine Page (especially when she was singing) but at least it was a fully-developed and unashamed musical. Now we have Edith in 90 minutes for the MTV generation whilst Pam has her finger permanently pressed on the fast-forward button. And God forbid that anyone should think this was a musical or even music theatre. Oh no – this is Serious Theatre – so every song is ended abruptly to prevent premature applause. And also, because it is Serious Theatre, Rogers is under-amplified so that for most of the evening she is fighting to be heard above the band. Rogers has happily recovered from the severe vocal problems she was going through towards the end of the Evita run – so turn up the volume and let’s hear her properly!

    The comedy in the scene where she coached the cowboy singer was so broad it was burlesque. We also get the worst Dietrich impression ever seen in public. How can it be Serious Theatre with these sorts of caricatures?

    There was also a very strange bit of wilful miscasting. One of the guys in the ensemble bore a startling resemblance to Marcel Cerdan but the role went to the guy with the go-go boy physique.

    Rogers was most successful at conjuring up the frail Paif at the end of her life. The scene where she sang a duet with her young husband, Theo Sarapo, was spookily exact (Rogers has obviously been watching the clip on YouTube) and by far the most moving moment in the show.

    The night I was there, the audience was much more interesting than the show. In the bar beforehand, we had Lord Browne, the ex-CEO of BP who resigned in a scandal last year, leaving under a cloud no bigger than a young man’s hand. He had a handsome Asian man for company. Then, immediately after the lights dimmed, a rather haggard American man in his 50s who was sitting immediately in front of me emptied a twist of cocaine into his palm and calmly applied it to his gums, introducing drug abuse into the show way before Edith. His very square-looking wife pretended nothing was happening, fixing her gaze on the stage while fiddling endlessly with her pashmina. And then the grand finale after the show – Elaine Strich in a cloche hat (“Does anyone still wear a HAT”) heading backstage, no doubt to tell Elena she’s spelling her name wrong. With all that going on, no wonder the production seemded like a drag show on speed.

    But I also disagree with Paul. Rogers will win awards for this: she stripped to her scanties, simulated bonking and drug-taking and didn’t stop for an interval. That conts as GREAT ACTING. But I begrudge her her awards not at all. I just hope the director doesn’t get one

  6. Helen Smith Says:

    Frank, thanks for this. I sat in the front row at a one woman show a while ago. A drunken late-comer took the seat next to me, fell asleep rather heavily on my shoulder (even though the show was quite entertaining and barely an hour long) then woke up, reached down into her bag, put her nose into a wrap of coke and had a big old line. It seemed so scandalous, I was saving the story for my memoirs. But perhaps drug-taking in theatre audiences is more commonplace than I realised?

    Next time I go to a matinee and hear the rustle of what I assume to be a Werther’s Original, I’m going to turn round and take a good look at what’s inside the wrapper. It would certainly help to explain why there are such long queues in the toilets as the less brazen of them take their fix.

    I wonder if the critics are at it, too? Some of the fizzier four star reviews for shows I haven’t enjoyed have left me baffled – until now.

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