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Piaf review at Charing Cross Theatre, London – ‘little to engage with’

Valerie Cutko and Cameron Leigh in Piaf at Charing Cross Theatre, London. Photo: Gabriel Szalontai Valerie Cutko and Cameron Leigh in Piaf at Charing Cross Theatre, London. Photo: Gabriel Szalontai

While watching this take on Pam Gems’ play with music, marking the centenary of iconic French chanteuse Edith Piaf’s birth, it is hard to believe how many plaudits the piece has received since it was first seen in 1978. If Jari Laakso’s lacklustre staging is anything to go by, it hasn’t stood the test of time.

Granted, the fact that it is hard to engage with this intense retelling of Piaf’s traumatic (and relatively brief) journey through life from street singer via Carnegie Hall triumph to drug and alcohol addiction, is not all the production’s fault. The text is often thin and confusing, and assumes audience members already know a great deal about Piaf before they have even set foot in the theatre.

However, elsewhere the standard of acting can be unpredictable, a result perhaps of the numerous roles many of the performer-musicians have to play – not least all the many men Piaf had affairs with. Valerie Cutko does bring a sophistication to her interpretation of Marlene Dietrich and Mal Hall leaves an impression both at the piano and as Charles Aznavour.

Apart from the bizarre decision, presumedly from the director, to give Piaf a cockney Carry On Barbara-Windsor-meets-Sid-James accent, Cameron Leigh is outstanding in the central role. Not only does she embody Piaf in her posture and physical gestures, but her powerhouse, heart-wrenching interpretation of the repertoire is phenomenal. She pours her heart and soul into a memorable performance.

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Despite showcasing a major vocal talent, there’s little to engage with in this overlong trawl through the life of Piaf