I doubt 40,000 people will come to Elaine Paige’s funeral.

As diminutive interpreters of popular song go, Edith Piaf outshone Paige ‘as daylight doth a lamp’ and entered French national consciousness close behind ‘Marianne’ as a symbol of the triumph of talent and determination over poverty.

You probably know she was a ‘child of the streets’ with an extraordinary voice discovered first by former drag artist Louis Leplée who was murdered a year after her debut in his chic night-club Gerny’s, then via the Bobino and Olympia music halls to be the most popular entertainer in France during the war years, and the highest-paid female singer in the world. You may also know she was as unlucky with men as her American counterpart Judy Garland, with whom she shared a tremulous vibrato and addictions to drink, drugs and middleweight boxers.

By the end of PIAF at Charing Cross Theatre, you may know little more thanks to Pam Gems’ crude and dated script, albeit the version Jamie Lloyd revised for the Donmar in 2008 when Elena Roger gave Piaf more appreciable light and shade than this stumble-and-belt through the back catalogue.

When the RSC first staged Piaf – with Jane Lapotaire and Zoë Wanamaker as Edith and her tarty chum Toine – an ensemble of 12 actors played the 30 ancillary characters and there was a band. Here, director Jari Laakso has cast just 6 to do the lot so the first act feels frantic, like a school play hastily re-cast during an epidemic and you have no idea who anyone is.

It’s better after the interval and Cameron Leigh deserves praise for mastering the songs and delivering them with power and intensity to evoke an essence of Piaf – but Edith didn’t sing constantly with such vehemence, and Leigh seems to have been goaded to deliver forcefully stylised renditions, since in rehearsal she had a subtler and more naturalistic approach. I’d also rather hear more of the lyrics in French, despite the fact she mispronounces some of it, since the translations Gems used were the terrible ones produced hastily for Piaf’s 1947 American tour and the phrases match the music far better in the original language.

Among the ensemble, there’s nice work from Mal Hall who also acts as Musical Director, and Philip Murray Warson sweetly captures Theo Sarapo, the Greek hairdresser who was Piaf’s last and devoted love.

Piaf died at 47 of inoperable liver cancer and walked and smiled until her last days, but her decrepitude – like everything else in this exaggerated production is childishly crayoned. Edith never wore puff sleeves, caterpillar eyebrows or a bright scarlet trout pout, either, and poor Leigh looks more like Joan Collins and giggles more like Barbara Windsor than an approximation of France’s greatest exponent of the chanson réaliste.

Edith Piaf was joined to her country by what Paris-Match called ‘an electricity of the heart’.  This is a bit of a brownout.

 

 

Trivium: in his new venture offering online theatre coaching, Kevin Spacey says that when you’ve achieved success in this industry, you have a duty to “send the elevator back down” to help others. He fails to credit Edith, since for her first American tour she hired nine unkown young Frenchmen from Lyons, Les Compagnons de la Chanson to accompany her, and coined this phrase to justify sharing so much of her $1000-a-night fee with them.