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Hymn to Love - Homage to Piaf

Steve Trafford
York Theatre Royal and Theatre by the Lake
York Theatre Royal

Elizabeth Mansfield (Edith Piaf) Credit: Robert Day
Patrick Bridgman (The Pianist) and Elizabeth Mansfield (Edith Piaf) Credit: Robert Day
Elizabeth Mansfield (Edith Piaf) Credit: Robert Day

Edith Piaf’s life may have been short, but it certainly did not lack in drama. The daughter of a street acrobat and a failed singer, France’s national chanteuse was brought up in a brothel, went blind for several years, lost her only child to meningitis, and was even accused of murdering her mentor, Louis Leplée. And all of this happened before she hit 30.

With such an extraordinary life, it’s no surprise that screenwriters and playwrights have been drawn like moths to Piaf’s quivering flame. The two major retellings of her story—Pam Gems’s play Piaf (1978) and Olivier Dahan’s film La Vie en rose (2007)—led their respective stars (Jane Lapotaire and Marion Cotillard) to awards glory by focusing on the key events of the singer’s tragic life.

Hymn to Love—Homage to Piaf, which was first staged 20 years ago, also covers the major incidents that occurred to Piaf during her 48 years, but does so in a less conventional and direct way. Instead of dramatic reconstruction, playwright Steve Trafford has Piaf (Elizabeth Mansfield) recount the key events of her life to a silent pianist (Patrick Bridgman), focusing principally on the death of her lover, boxing champion Marcel Cerdan, who perished in a plane crash.

The action of the play unfurls in a mysterious, non-specific site that seems to exist outside of time and space. Who is the pianist? Is he meant to be a blend of all Piaf’s previous accompanists? Or perhaps even a supernatural confidante?

The otherworldy aspect of the piece is enhanced by Andrew J Lindsay’s projections, which add texture to Piaf’s reminiscences.

Despite a poignant and committed performance from Mansfield, I found that the static nature of the production stifled its dramatic force. The decision to keep the pianist silent means that Mansfield is given little to act against, and there is little sense of dramatic tension or resolution overall.

However, as an admirer of Piaf’s music, I thoroughly enjoyed the cabaret aspect of the production. Mansfield has a lovely voice and she imbues all of Piaf’s standards—including the immortal “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien”—with the requisite blend of strength and fragility that made the singer so captivating. She is ably supported by Bridgman on the piano, and Trafford’s English translations of the French lyrics are poetic and sensitive.

Reviewer: James Ballands