Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 18 August 2018
LA PETITE PIAF, REVENANTE… I grew up with Piaf, a temporary French schoolchild in 1960, skated around the patinoire with my friends snarling along with the endless plays of “Je ne regrette rien!”, at an age with nothing much yet to regret.
No singer – not the young Francoise Hardy lisping Tous les Garcons, certainly not Les Compagnons de la Chanson, eclipsed the continuing late-career power of the “little sparrow”. The romance of street-acrobat’s kid raised among prostitutes, singing for a few sous on the pavements, entertaining troops on both sides in WW2, was only part of it: it was the gravelly voice, the autobiographical ferocity and power and plaintive street-wisdom of the storytelling in her songs that held us, even at the age of nine.
So I felt nervous of seeing Elizabeth Mansfield’s solo performance, not least because Annie Castledine and Steve Trafford have translated the songs (all but one, we’ll come to that..). The translations are actually excellent, though I miss “une fille du port, une ombre dans la rue”. And most importantly, it is a fine, and sparing, script, set in bursts of rehearsal-room reminiscence, sorrow or flashback (a haunted telephone gives a good odd moment). She recalls the death of her greatest lover the boxer Marcel; shouts a little at her pianist (Patrick Bridgman), gradually fires up, song by song, to the moment of her last US performance.
In the plain black dress and clumping shoes, Mansfield is at moments the eternal timeworn resolute figure of any concierge booth in old France; at others a star of instant ferocity and musical passion. With the slight stoop and the worn, passionate manner she catches that Piaffian “howl of a wounded animal”, and that pose which sometimes forgets the cabaret gesticulations and keeps her hands on her thighs “like lizards on a rock” as she did in fear at her first audition.
There are 13 songs – of dissipation, prostitution and headlong reckless love, of tenderness for a lost legionnaire or accordioniste. But always “Ecoutez la musique!”. Faint cloudy projections behind her in the tiny theatre resolve into newsreel footage of her Marcel and herself. Finally there is the unforgettable, the untranslatable, the final Je Ne Regrette Rien. In French. And the illusion is complete, and Piaf walks the pavements and the stages once more. A phenomenal 90 minutes.
box office jermynstreetheatre.co.uk to 18 agu. Best get in there quick.