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Watermill - Piaf

10th October to 24th November 2001

From the NWN.

Outpouring of raw emotion

'PIAF', at The Watermill, until Saturday, November 24

October 10 marked the 38th anniversary of the death of Edith Piaf, street singer of Paris or, in the view of one member of the audience I overheard during last Friday's interval, "a common slut".

Was that person on the same planet as the rest of us as we watched Jo Baird in a mammoth performance, bringing back to fife a woman who never gave less than everything and whose voice, demanding, exciting, packed with raw emotion, filled with pathos, wrenched at our hearts and minds?

True, this is not a show for the easily shocked nor those who have been heard to utter "Language, Timothy!", for no punches have been pulled. But the result, against a background of a dusty Parisian bar so evocative that I kept trying to smell the Gauloises, is a gutsy, full-blooded outpouring of emotion that leaves you drained and full of admiration. It does not set out to shock, as is so often is the case, but simply shows the woman that was Edith Piaf, the good, the bad, the magnificent.

It is, of course, one of many return visits to the Watermill for Ms Baird, whose performance as Sally Bowles in 'Cabaret' I thought she could not better. In 'Piaf' she has done so. This is not mere mimicry of a star, but a concentrated, intense achievement in producing the essence of the small woman in black, born on a policeman's cloak in a Paris doorway, and throwing it in our faces.

Just for once the actor musicians (good to see Karen Mann and Mike Afford there) became a wonderful, moving backcloth for the range of emotions pouring from the central character and it is a great tribute to them that the audience's attention remained riveted on Piaf throughout as they accompanied her in the songs which told the story - gay, seductive, and the poignant 'La Vie En Rose'. Praise too must go to Wayne Dowdeswell, for his lighting plot, one moment making a harsh mask of Jo Baird's face as she clawed her way up the microphone, the next softly illuminating the despairing, lonely figure slumped at a table.

The winning combination of director John Doyle and musical director Sarah Travis has done it again, for 'Piaf' is surely destined for further success.

'Who wants to see a dwarf looking like a war widow, when they can have Doris Day?" Piaf asks. Most of the world, Piaf, most of the world.

Don't miss this one - it's unforgettable.


And the Newbury Theatre view:

As the audience come in to the Watermill, Josephine Baird, as Piaf, is alone on stage doing her make-up before a performance. Other people come on – cleaners, musicians – but in silence. The atmosphere is one of smoky despair. Finally the announcer introduces Piaf, and a strangled cry comes from her mouth. The announcer tries again, and slowly, painfully, she clambers her way into a song.

This stark but riveting opening to the show is a scene from the final years of Piaf’s life, but we are taken back immediately to the start of her career when she is ‘discovered’ as a singer, the unprepossessing little waif with the extraordinary voice.

Piaf was in some ways a monster – rude, unpleasant, foul-mouthed – but also a feisty woman, and that voice made up for a lot. Josephine Baird gave a great impersonation of the voice, with all the power and intensity (although she didn’t roll her ‘r’s as much as I remember Piaf doing). As usual with John Doyle’s productions, the rest of the cast were versatile musicians, including Mike Afford and Karen Mann, veterans of his previous productions.

The play took us through the innocent bravado of the pre-war days, the excitement of the money and the fame, the post-war ennui of touring, the drug and alcohol addiction and loneliness, to her final days with Theo. It brought out very clearly the starkness and unhappiness of her life, and Josephine Baird gave a bravura performance, full of passion and intensity. You couldn’t just watch this, you got sucked into the emotion of it, and once again the intimacy of the Watermill heightened this effect. The lighting was particularly effective, with harsh spotlights piercing the smoky darkness.

Inevitably, the show ended with Piaf defiantly singing, ‘Non, je ne regrette rien’, leaving you wondering whether it was true or not.