Elizabeth Mansfield's 1995 performance in a biographical/musical tribute to Marie Lloyd garnered solid reviews and won her an Olivier nomination. Now the same team – Mansfield, writer Steve Trafford and director Annie Castledine – bestow a similar treatment on Edith Piaf. The character may simply be designated "The Singer", but the music, the slide projections, the show's very subtitle Homage To Piaf leave us in no doubt that only one chanteuse can be intended.
I never saw Mansfield in Marie, but report speaks of her in that show as a fine if not a transcendental performer. What can safely be said now is that her Piaf in Hymn To Love is a work of rigour, commitment and passion. Her voice may not be quite as tremulous nor her presence quite as fragile as those of the Little Sparrow, but what Mansfield might lack in the strictest verisimilitude she makes up in the magnetism of her portrayal.
The narrative, such as it is, takes its cue from the telephonic structure of Cocteau's Le Bel Indifférent (written for Piaf), and hinges around the singer hearing, whilst she rehearses for a New York concert appearance, of the death in an air crash of her lover, boxer Marcel Cerdan. This news triggers a series of monologic reminiscences which comment upon, and are commented upon by, the songs she sings: thus, The Singer's recollection of how she would "screw anything in trousers" cues a rendition of "Mon Légionnaire", which in turn leads to her account of her lost Marcel.
Timothy Sutton's pianism and orchestrations capture the variety of genres and influences of Piaf's chansons, and live and recorded sound are adroitly blended – the final, taped segment of "Bravo pour le Clown" slowly, quadraphonically circles the audience, oozing from speaker to speaker. It makes patent sense for all lyrics to have been thoughtfully, tenderly retranslated into English... with the understandable exception of the mandatory encore of "Je Ne Regrette Rien". By the final sequence, recreating the concert performance itself, the press night audience were not only stamping their feet after each number but on occasion spontaneously rising to them. The ninety uninterrupted minutes of Hymn To Love made me more than a little ashamed of my personal preference for Jacques Brel; obviously, I'm missing a great deal.
Written for the Financial Times.
Copyright © Ian Shuttleworth; all rights reserved.
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