Piaf – Gate Theatre – Review
December 7th to Saturday January 28th 2023
We meet ‘Little Sparrow’ (Zara Devlin playing Piaf as a young girl) as she is singing on a street corner. Most of the passers-by ignore her as they carry on with their daily lives, but one individual stops and takes notice. He is Louis Leplée (Rory Nolan), a Parisian nightclub owner who spots her latent talent. He takes the young singer under his wing and gives her an opportunity to sing in his establishment. The rest, as they say, is history!
This play tells the story of the life of Édith Piaf, the world-famous French singer. We meet her as a teenager, where she is scavenging to survive. We then see her rise to the top of the entertainment business and her subsequent decline. This version of Piaf’s life story was written by Pam Gems and was first performed in 1978 at the Royal Shakespeare Company’s The Other Place in Stratford-upon-Avon.
The play is two and a half hours long (with an interval) and features 24 songs and all of Piaf’s best-known and loved works. We follow Piaf as she travels the world and see her on stage in a variety of locations. It is an impressionistic version of her life story, it does not focus on the smaller elements of her life and it is never long before another song arrives. The cast all play multiple roles and it can often be quite difficult to figure out who they are playing in this instance, but the flow of the story keeps it moving.
Piaf’s life is not the perfect tale for Christmas, as in her early years she lived in a brothel with her grandmother. Also, her final years were quite difficult as she struggled with substance abuse and ill health. Amazingly, she was only 47 years old when she died but she made quite an impact in that time.
We briefly see Zara Devlin playing the youthful Piaf, before she is replaced by Camille O’Sullivan who plays Piaf as an adult. O’Sullivan has made her name by performing the works of many other songwriters and she is almost perfect in the role of Piaf, as her powerful rasping voice shows the emotion that Piaf was famous for. Her renditions of the many classic tunes stand up to the originals.
The staging is relatively simple with curtains and quick set changes used to create the many locations required, but the one trick they do have up their sleeve is a revolving set, which is used to good effect, especially for the musical numbers.
The pace of the storytelling is tumultuous and despite the duration of the production, there is a lot to pack in. While it is an unusual choice for the Christmas audience it is a powerful piece that shows a character constantly trying to escape her troubled childhood. The ensemble cast does well to create the many individuals required and there are some impressive actors on display, such as Phelim Drew, Rory Nolan and Kate Gilmore. In truth, the piece is focused on Camille O’Sullivan and her superb renditions of Piaf’s much-loved songs. It is the story of a woman who lived her life on her own terms and while it is a troubling story, she said it best herself when singing “Non, je ne regrette rien”.
Little Sparrow: Zara Devlin
Bruno: Phelim Drew
Marcel: Kwaku Fortune
Toine: Kate Gilmore
Marlene: Aoife Mulholland
Louis Leplée: Rory Nolan
Édith Piaf: Camille O’Sullivan
Theo: Emmanuel Okoye
Charles: Ash Rizi
Yves: Darragh Shannon
Director: Des Kennedy
Set Designer: Sabine Dargent
Costume Designer: Catherine Fay
Lighting Designer: Sinéad McKenna
Sound Designer: Sinéad Diskin
Music Director / Piano: Feargal Murray
Movement / Choreographer: Jen Rooney
Illusionist: John Bulleid
Casting Director: Maureen Hughes
Assistant Director: Chris Moran
Design Assistant: Caroline Menassol
Lighting Associate and Programmer: Eoin Lennon
Assistant Musical Director: Shane McVicker
Accordionist: Derek McKenna
Music Arrangements and Original Composition: Feargal Murray
Voice and Dialect Coach: Gavin O’Donoghue
Phonetic Specialist: Cécile Gorge
Sound Engineer: Colm Hinchion
Sound Engineer: John Norton
Producer Cover: Emma Coen
Production Manager: Peter Jordan
Stage Manager: Donna Leonard
Assistant Stage Manager: Síle Mahon
Assistant Stage Manager: Ben Moore
Costume Assistant: Aoife Eustace Doyle
Costume Dresser: Sarah Higgins
Hair and Makeup Artist: Sarah McCann