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Piaf review: Great music from a dark, jagged place

Elaborate production does justice to the French singer

Gate Theatre, Dublin

The songs do not feel sentimental at the beginning of the Gate Theatre’s bold musical about Édith Piaf. It probably has something to do with the singer. On a street in Paris, a young Édith performs for donations (scrappy and blunt, in Zara Devlin’s performance), sounding tender about the city’s dispossessed for a brief moment, before brushing off fans after the final note. Abandoned and unsupervised, her survival is more important than making art.

There is no place for embellishment in the dark corners of this early-century Paris, where criminals plot murders and women exchange sex for money. A nightclub owner providing a stage even advises: “It’s a rough song. I want it rougher”. The playscript by Pam Gems insists on spending time with these early experiences to show how they shaped Piaf, before moving through the decades to show a complicated relationship to music: a singer singing about authentic love, whose romances are doomed in real life.

That has the makings of a dark spectacle for director Des Kennedy, putting 24 songs (mostly sung in French) on a stage that revolves, but with added bite. The adult Édith, in the compelling form of Camille O’Sullivan, is harshly offhand and flip, pushing close companions away whilst having breakout success during the second World War, and advancing on to a transatlantic career. She is haunted by ghostly faces from the past that surprisingly reappear in mirrors and flickering lights, in an elaborate production that counts an illusionist among its creative team.

There is the question of what’s left of Piaf’s songs after being slotted into a theatrical context. L’Accordéoniste (The Accordionist) is a sustaining fantasy composed during wartime and dreaming of its aftermath, but here it is performed as a victory song at the end of the conflict, resembling more a throwaway number than a coping mechanism. The signature number La Vie en rose, a perfect vision of intimate love, comes as nothing more than a duet with Marlene Dietrich (an absorbing Aoife Mulholland).


Other songs receive affecting new resonances. Piaf heartbrokenly recorded L’Hymne à L’Amour (Hymn to Love) the year after her lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan (nicely played by Kwaku Fortune), died in a plane crash. The musical allows it to play out in real time, as the soundtrack to their swooning romance. If what follows – the foot stomp of Padam, a song about a triggered memory of past love – becomes tinged with grief, maybe it was a “rough song” all along.

O’Sullivan’s performance is similarly jagged: hitting all the required poses as a resistance fighter showing her legs to Nazi soldiers and making dead drops, but the thrum of a latter-stage spiral into failed romances and addiction eventually becomes repetitive. Most surprising are the new shades of affection she reveals towards the end, being won over by a loyal admirer. Gems knew well that many of Piaf’s songs are about chance encounters, of love being discovered at the turn of a corner. How satisfying to see it arrive, monumental and yet like happenstance: La vie en rose.

Runs at the Gate Theatre until 28th January

Chris McCormack

Chris McCormack is a contributor to The Irish Times specialising in culture