Friday, 1 March 2013

Frances Ruffelle as Piaf. a review.

“Mesmerising, I never wanted the music to stop.” Phil Lowe

The first time I saw Pam Gems play 'Piaf' was at the Derby Playhouse in 1982. The original play had opened in February 1978, at the RSC's  Other Place in Stratford on Avon, transferred to the Donmar Warehouse; and from there to the Aldwych, Wyndam's and the Piccadilly theatre in the West End and Jane Lapotaire had won the Tony award for her performance of Piaf on Broadway.

In the Derby Playhouse production, a young, relatively unknown actress called Caroline Quentin played Edith Piaf and was stunningly good. Further in her career Quentin went on to be part of the ensemble and played a prostitute in the original production of the musical Les Misérables. Based on those theatrical memories and that of seeing FrancesRuffelle as Eponine way back then, I went to Leicester's Curvetheatre to see Frances Ruffelle as Edith Gassion (Piaf).

This gripping and entertaining drama is performed at the studio space with an ensemble cast playing many and various roles of characters that came and went into Piaf's dramatic, difficult and often lonely life. Piaf couldn't bear to be alone especially after her concerts when she said that: 'The audience is so warm down there in that black hole. It's as though all those people are taking you in their arms, opening their hearts to you and taking you in. You overflow with their love, and they overflow with love for you. They want you to give yourself to them, you sing, you shout, you scream your pleasure, you're beside yourself with happiness.'

The world outside the stage door, for her, was often filled with exploitation and abuse from men. Yet through this life drama she had a great spirit, a naughty sense of fun and a voice full of raw emotion and power. She touched the hearts of millions and when she died from liver cancer in 1963 over one hundred thousand Parisians followed her coffin to its final resting place.

Frances Ruffelle as Edith Piaf

Frances Ruffelle brilliantly charged her theatrical portrayal of Edith Piaf with energy, fun, grittiness, pathetic vulnerability coupled with a determined stubborn toughness as the character struggled to carry on and on during the crazy circus of her short life. Ruffelle's singing was brilliantly done, nine songs in well articulated French, gesturing as Piaf but giving the part something extra special – creating a real live gutsy raw character you really cared about despite her massive mood swings and drug abuse. She was especially magnificent during her scenes of terrible despair, caught in a circle of cold harsh light scrabbling on her knees at the street cobbles racked with desperate sadness and the final scenes with Theo, her last, calm and caring lover were very moving. She is on stage for the entire play and runs the gamut of emotions throughout through her acting and songs.

Including Frances Ruffelle there were nine actors in this company and all were terrific morphing into one character after another on some extraordinarily quick scene changes. I particularly liked Laura Pitt-Pulford as Toine as she portrayed Edith's prostitute friend through various stages of her life – you sensed the ageing and growing bitterness and sadness of the character. Tiffany Graves as Marlene and the two nurses was wonderfully different in each role and Oliver Boot was perfectly cast as the tender boxer Marcel. This was ensemble acting at it's best as each character portrayed by the other male actors was clearly defined and regardless of the longevity of the role on stage each was totally believable.

The set design of a brick railway arch, framed within a frame and a sweeping black curtain created the tawdry atmosphere for the many scene changes as the audience flickered back and forth through  the late Pam Gem's play of Piaf's life. All was angular and smoky, terrific lighting and sound and with three live musicians, pianist, accordionist and drummer the stage was set for a wonderful time at the theatre. Paul Kerryson's direction was exemplary.

This was the first production I have seen at the Curve and I will certainly be going back again. The production runs until March 16th.


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