Edith Piaf’s rise from singing on Paris streets to selling out Carnegie Hall is one of the great legends of musical stardom. In Des Kennedy’s staging of Pam Gems’ bio-musical, the focus is on the singer’s decline and fall, her troubled life and early death. Piaf is centre stage throughout, in a role split between Zara Devlin as the gifted young urchin, and Camille O’Sullivan as the fully formed artist.
While Gems’ play has not aged well, it provides a framework for 24 songs, linked to Piaf’s life story, which is sketchily told. With the exception of Marlene Dietrich (Aoife Mulholland) advising Piaf to focus on her technique, and Toine (Kate Gilmore), Piaf’s buddy from the streets of Belleville, the other characters are flimsy, with fine actors such as Rory Nolan and Phelim Drew underused. O’Sullivan, a dazzling musical interpreter in her solo shows, seems constrained by the role, her instinct for improvisation perhaps hampered by the need to impersonate such a vocally distinctive and well documented artist as Piaf.
As a company though, the cast of 10 gels impressively, joining Piaf as a constantly shifting chorus. Designer Sabine Dargent’s revolving stage zips from backstage scenes in concert halls to zinc bars or bedrooms, with the circling floor providing the momentum often missing from the script. In the second act, as Piaf moves desperately from lover to lover, survives car crashes and becomes addicted to morphine, O’Sullivan inhabits the role fully: rolling on the floor, or charging like a bull in one drug-addled sequence. Standing completely still, her affecting rendition of Non, je ne regrette rien has a downward inflection, half spoken, that suggests that this defiant declaration may not quite be true.