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Camille O’Sullivan as Édith Piaf in the Gate Theatre’s production of Piaf. Photo: Agata Stoinska


First produced in 1978, Pam Gems’ Piaf received its Irish Premier at the Gate Theatre this week. You could be forgiven for wondering why. As a play with music, there have been several superior offerings in the intervening years more likely to have wider appeal. Gems’ musical pitstop through the life of Edith Piaf not being universally acclaimed even in its day, despite winning countless awards. Showing what made Piaf into a shambles, it shows little of what made her a star. This being an inelegant, crass, ugly Piaf, lacking the charm and elegance that informs her music. Which might have stolen hearts once upon a time, but is little known beyond her obvious classics today.

Kwaku Fortune, Zara Devlin and Emmanuel Okoye in the Gate Theatre’s production of Piaf. Photo: Agata Stoinska

Less a biography so much as a glossary of incidents, songs carry most of the emotional heft. As Piaf stumbles on stage, a clever transformation brings us back to her youth on the mean streets of Paris where the girl from the gutter dreams of the stars. A Paris which resembles a nostalgic Dublin. Zara Devlin hugely impressive as a young Piaf, and Kate Gilmore as Toine, being two street urchins who could easily pass for bi-lingual fruit dealers on Moore Street. So strong are their exaggerated Dublin accents, they sound like they'd be more at home in Mrs Browns Boys. Like a series of bullet points, selective moments in Piaf’s life come hard and fast and without any depth: spotted singing on the street then given a chance to sing at a Parisian nightclub, her relationship with the Nazis during World War II, her love for a married boxer who dies tragically, her descent into drug and alcohol abuse following a series of car accidents culminating in her untimely death in 1963 at the age of 47. Interspersed are twenty-four songs with varying degrees of connection to the subtleties Gems omits, leaving you to fill in the blanks.

Camille O’Sullivan as Édith Piaf in the Gate Theatre’s production of Piaf. Photo: Agata Stoinska

On paper, Camille O’Sullivan sounds like dream casting as Piaf. An intuitive chanteuse whose irresistible presence, honeyed voice and ability to work an audience has made O’Sullivan one of the best around. Yet this inelegant Piaf, all mad cackles and voracious appetites, with the personality of a rusty razor, feels lopsided, even as O’Sullivan crafts several memorable moments. Wrestling bravely with a script with not enough meat on its textual bones, her singing works hard to carry the weight. Which, at moments, bowls you over, (as does a hugely impressive Devlin), while at others feels like its dragging its warbling heels, straddling that line between performance and impersonation. Catherine Fay’s costumes not helping, conjuring a constantly frumpy femme with the fashion sense of Dinner Ladies; O’Sullivan looking like champagne poured into an old sock. Piaf, at times, resembling Judy Garland in a bad wig, risking being upstaged by Aoife Mulholland’s stylish and commanding Marlene Dietrich. With one song the Veronica Lake styled Mulholland has the audience eating out of the palm of her hand. Unlike Piaf, whose walking wound is all agony and little ecstasy. Less free spirited so much as mean spirited, aside from when supporting new artists like Charles Aznavour.

Aoife Mulholland as Marlene Dietrich in the Gate Theatre’s production of Piaf. Photo: Agata Stoinska

Technically, Piaf is a visual treat. Staging by director Des Kennedy a whirling dervish in which transitions look magical. Sabine Dargent’s constantly shifting design and Sinéad McKenna’s lights being utterly glorious. If Sinead Diskin’s sound design tries to fill in too many narrative blanks, arrangements and original compositions by Feargal Murray prove more successful. Rounding out a committed cast, many doubling and tripling up, Phelim Drew, Kwaku Fortune, Rory Nolan, Emmanuel Okoye, Ash Rizi and Darragh Shannon bring lots of the good stuff, with Fortune and Shannon being of particular note.

Camille O’Sullivan as Édith Piaf in the Gate Theatre’s production of Piaf. Photo: Agata Stoinska

With its dark, adult themes, Piaf makes for curious seasonal fare at The Gate. Piaf might have been a loudmouth, assertive woman with a taste for crassness, but in Gems’ play that’s all she is. Striving for a Disney-like grimness, its Non, je ne regrette rien reduced to a French My Way, Piaf trades in song as sentiment but lacks the singers charm and elegance. Piaf aficionados will find much to love and hate, given Marion Cotillard’s 2007 biopic, La Vie en Rose, did a far superior job with the same subject matter. The inaugural production of Artistic Director Róisín McBrinn and Executive Director Colm O’Callaghan Piaf seems less to make a statement about what’s to come at The Gate so much as a testing of the waters. Leaving theatre lovers with much to be hopeful for. It might not all land, but Piaf looks stunning in waters that feel uncharted. Always a good place to start.

Piaf, by Pam Gems, presented by The Gate Theatre, runs at The Gate Theatre until January 28th

For more information, visit The Gate Theatre


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