By Rosy Moorhead
From the squalor of the streets of Paris to the glamour of the world wide stage, Edith Piaf continues to be remembered and revered as much for her extraordinary life as for her exceptional voice.
A new production, Piaf, telling the French singer and cultural icon’s story from the time of her discovery to her death, is being staged by All Star Productions at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre in Walthamstow.
The play was written in 1978 by British playwright Pam Gems, who died earlier this year, and stars Scottish actor Lisa Baird in the title role.
It is structured around the themes of fame, love and loneliness, and the events of Piaf’s life are presented as memories recalled shortly before her death.
Director Dawn Kalani Cowle said that fame was the play’s most powerful theme.
“The play tells the story of how Piaf became famous and the people that came into her life from that point on," she explains, "who only wanted her for her fame - who really loved her?
“This is a story of fame and the self-destruction that can come with it. There is always someone contemporary that you can see in that role: Amy Winehouse, for instance.
“I think the appeal of that era is the air of style and glamour. Celebrities’ lives don’t have that today but the issues they have to deal with haven’t changed much. Nor has the way society views and treats celebrities.”
Born in 1915, Piaf started her career as a street singer, aged 14. The play follows her life from the time she was discovered until her death in 1963.
The word Piaf is an argot colloquialism for 'sparrow'. Her nickname, given to her by nightclub owner Louis Leplee, was Little Sparrow, in reference to her tiny stature (she was just 4ft 8in tall) and nervous disposition.
Love and loneliness also feature strongly in the play. Describing Piaf’s complicated love life, Cowle said: “There were many men in Piaf’s life. She usually left them before they could leave her. But the love of her life, Marcel Cerdan, died at the height of their love affair.
“Two of her husbands were actually closet homosexuals, Jacques Pills and Theo Sarapo. So the play also covers love as companionship, as a cure for loneliness.”
The show features all of Piaf’s best-loved numbers, from La Vie en Rose to Milord to Non, je ne regrette rien.
The play was Pam Gems' best-known work and was originally produced by the RSC before transferring to the West End and Broadway. It was revived in 1993 with Elaine Paige in the starring role, and then again in 1998, testimony to Piaf's enduring appeal.
Piaf is at Ye Olde Rose and Crown Theatre, Hoe Street, Walthamstow from November 8 to 26. Details: 0843 289 2144, www.allstarproductions.co.uk