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Green Light in the City

Theatre Review: Piaf at Nottingham Playhouse

14 July 21 words: Hollie Anderson
photos: Marc Brenner

Hollie Anderson headed down to Nottingham Playhouse for an in-person performance of Piaf - the story of France's most iconic songstress...

The soft murmur of the audience, ushers greeting you at the door, the call for audiences to turn off their phones as the lights dim. All that’s left is the warm glow of lamps on cabaret tables, before the dirty streets of Paris are revealed on stage. It’s Nottingham Playhouse, but not as we know it.

The local theatre has flung open its doors once again with Piaf – the belting story of France’s most famous singer who took the world by storm. The play follows a year of closure, reopening, socially distanced audiences and digital pantomimes, after COVID wreaked havoc with arts venues across the globe. 

Piaf was meant to be the final, grand reopening for the Playhouse but the stalling of roadmap plans has sadly meant physical distancing and face coverings are still mandatory for its run.

Despite the disappointment of a smaller audience, Piaf still makes for a good evening out. Played by the ever-talented and gorgeously energetic Jenna Russell (EastEnders, BBC, Sunday in the Park with George, Wyndham’s Theatre) we follow France’s most famous starlet – Edith Piaf – as she hurtles through her incredible, high-octane life.

The musical performances are also note-perfect, with designer Frankie Bradshaw’s grimy urban set providing a striking backdrop

Joining Jenna is a cast studded with West End stars including Sally Ann Triplett as Toine, Edith’s hilarious best friend and a smouldering Marlene Dietrich is brought back to life by Laura Pitt-Pulford. I was thrilled to see Zheng Xi Yong return to the Playhouse after appearing in Assassins in 2019. Garry Robson and Louis Gaunt also gave wonderfully strong performances.

What I didn’t expect from the production was how crass and rude it would be. Within the first five minutes Edith is peering up her friend’s skirt, checking for crabs. If this is your thing, it will certainly tickle you, with candid humour throughout the play.

It has to be said that Pam Gems’ script has been revived many times (most notably in 1981 when the lead role was taken by Imelda Staunton), but the quick pace between scenes means the many, smaller stories that made up Edith’s life can be hard to follow. It’s a shame as many of Piaf’s relationships and interactions remain underdeveloped, when the brilliant cast makes us want to learn and see more of each chapter. The use of cockney accents by the actors, meant to indicate Edith’s rougher start in life, can become a little much at times as well.

But generally the content is fascinating. We see Edith live through poignant moments in history, punctuated by her all-consuming love affairs and gut-wrenching tragedy. It is truly amazing to see what she lived through, and to understand what she managed to survive. The musical performances are also note-perfect, with designer Frankie Bradshaw’s grimy urban set providing a striking backdrop.  

This is one hell of a story to reopen with.

Piaf will be performed at Nottingham Playhouse until 17 July

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