Imagine if instead of Beyonce the world’s biggest female star was a foul-mouthed Parisian street urchin who was blessed with a golden voice that lifted her out of the slums to global fame.
That’s the story of Edith Piaf – aka The Little Sparrow – and this raucous revival of Pam Gems’ musical biography pulls no punches telling the tale of a damaged woman who flew high before crashing back to earth as like Lady Day she was totally unequipped for the price of fame.
If anything, Gems tries too hard to pack in too much of Piaf’s rich life, overegging her rough beginnings, and the second half feels a touch padded.
This is not an evening for the faint hearted as the C bomb is dropped a couple of times, among an impressive array of expletives, drawing gasps from some of the more genteel audience members.
Experienced director Adam Penfold opts to give cockney accents to Piaf and her low life mates rather than some dodgy ‘Allo, Allo’ French efforts which mainly works.
Tony and Olivier nominee Jenna Russell sings many of Piaf’s classics like La Vie en Rose, Mon Dieu and a moving ensemble version of Les Trios Cloche in French and English, although interestingly she adopts different tones for each. Russell was born to play this role but opts to tone down Piaf’s distinctive vibrato offering her much more control as she pours extra meaning into Little Sparrow’s bittersweet ballads.
Sally Ann Triplett’s first act as streetwalker Toine is to ask her mate Piaf to check her for crabs, but after that unusual entrance her witty scene stealing performance, and strong singing, also mines the pathos of two exploited friends doing anything to keep themselves alive.
Despite a dodgy towering wig Laura Pitt-Pulford is wonderfully cool as Piaf’s unlikely mate Marlene Dietrich, and her duet with Russell is glorious. A generally solid supporting cast work hard in a dizzying variety of roles, including a well-executed boxing sequence featuring Piaf’s great love, married world champ Marcel Cerdan.
As Russell stands along in the spotlight in Piaf’s trademark black dress belting out her defiant anthem Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien it is a reminder that despite her many flaws France’s national chanteuse was a powerhouse if fragile talent, and it’s the perfect finale for a pitch perfect lead performance that papers over any of the show’s cracks.
Piaf is at Leeds Playhouse until 7th August. To book call 0113 213700 or online via https://leedsplayhouse.org.uk/events/piaf-2/
Reviewer: Paul Clarke
Reviewed: 26th July 2021
North West End UK Rating: ★★★★