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.