The latest production at Leicester’s Curve Theatre is ‘Piaf’. Directed by Paul Kerryson with Frances Ruffelle playing the eponymous Little Sparrow. Based on the life of Edith Piaf, this is a story of tragedy, abuse, drug addiction, misplaced love and pure unabashed emotion. Plenty to be getting along with in the misery stakes, then, especially if you like your theatre to be melodramatic and emotionally sapping. Based on Pam Gem’s play of the same name, the difference here is that well-known songs from the Piaf repertoire are interspersed through the story.
However, what should be emotionally vibrant ends up being unintentionally comic. This is more Carry On than tragic, more Crofts and Perry than Piaf. Either intentionally or unintentionally, the whole enterprise suffers from some excruciating and inept staging. Scenes and characters pass by so quickly that it is impossible to get any sense of why they are relevant. Something the cast also clearly struggles with. The moment when two German soldiers are brought into a scene representing Piaf’s time in occupied Paris, was straight from ‘Allo ‘Allo! Short only of the missing sausage and the Madonna with the ‘big boobies’.
Ruffelle’s channelling of Barbra Windsor, giving Piaf a broad cockney accent, means that I was constantly expecting Bernard Breslaw or Kenneth Connor to appear. Ruffelle’s inability to roll an ‘r’ further reduces any incredulity that might otherwise assist the audience, though she certainly does a good impression of Elaine Page when the songs are segued into an English translation.
The male cast was akin to a stocky English fifties crime drama, rather than a svelte, Gallic melodrama. In attempting to take in the whole sweep of Piaf’s life, the action is only sketched out in a comic book style. The scenery is more suited to a dour Wagnerian opera, with it’s stone-black monolithic backing, while the musical accompaniment matches the setting – dull and tuneless. The use of projections to assist the audience in situating the drama was clumsy, and the repeated car or airplane crashing sound effects was more suited to a sixth-form staging than something from a director who is so experienced.
Sitting in the auditorium admiring the smoke caught in the spotlights is not a good sign when watching a theatrical production. My advice is to rent La Vie en Rose on DVD, saving the price of expensive tickets and going out in the cold.