Jermyn Street Theatre, London – until 18 August 2018
Hymn to Love plays homage to the life and work of Edith Piaf, drawing on Piaf’s extensive and well-loved repertoire, much of which was autobiographical and written by or for her. Devised by Annie Castledine, Steve Trafford and Elizabeth Mansfield, who plays Piaf, the show is beautifully simple: whilst rehearsing in a hotel room, Piaf tells her pianist (Patrick Bridgman) her life story in between songs.
Brought up in a brothel in Normandy and blind with keratitis for several years as a child (her keratitis was cured, it is claimed, as the result of a miracle or spiritual healing), Piaf spent many years as a street performer, initially with her father (a clown).
She became pregnant as a teenager, but her daughter Marcelle died aged at the age of two of meningitis. To pay for the funeral Piaf agreed to sleep with a man, who ended up giving her the money without wanting sex after she told him her tragic story.
Later, she was discovered by the Parisian nightclub owner Louis Leplée, who nurtured and styled her and helped her develop the dramatic performance style. Then Leplée was killed by mobsters who Piaf knew, and she was accused of being an accessory to his murder (she always maintained she was not).
After the war, Piaf fell in love with the great love of her life, the married boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, but he died in a plane crash on his way to see her in New York. There was more tragedy – she married and divorced and married again, she was in several car crashes, and she drank heavily and took drugs to dull the pain.
Songs such as Bravo pour le clown, Milord, Mon legionnaire, Hymn a l’amour and Non, je ne regrette rien have an even greater resonance as we hear these stories. And the job is made even easier for us by Steve Trafford’s excellent English translations of the lyrics, delivered with the same drama and tragedy as Piaf by Mansfield.
Bridgman, as the pianist, looks like he’s heard it all before as Piaf revisits life with her father, Marcelle, Leplée and Cerdan. But mainly Cerdan. His death seems to have been a tipping point in Piaf’s life, a great tragedy just as she was really making it and looked to have found happiness.
As Piaf descends into heavier and heavier drinking, distressed by flashbacks to bad memories and almost crippled by stage fright, she turns to the pianist and realises that she has to go on. There is nothing else, Non, je ne regrette rien. And we see now why a singer who died more than half a century ago, whose songs we in the English-speaking world don’t really understand, touch us still.