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Theatre review - 'Hymn to Love - Homage to Piaf', Theatre by the Lake

PUBLISHED: 10:10 27 March 2018

Piaf 3 - Patrick Bridgman (The Pianist) and Elizabeth Mansfield (Edith Piaf). Photo by Robert Day

Piaf 3 - Patrick Bridgman (The Pianist) and Elizabeth Mansfield (Edith Piaf). Photo by Robert Day

Robert Day

The Sparrow Sings again in Keswick

Piaf 1 - Elizabeth Mansfield (Edith Piaf). Photo by Robert DayPiaf 1 - Elizabeth Mansfield (Edith Piaf). Photo by Robert Day

It was a bold move by Keswick’s Theatre by the Lake (TBTL) to open their 2018 season with, effectively, a two-man mini-musical; all the more so when one character, The Pianist (played by Patrick Bridgman) doesn’t say anything at all. Such a decision was certainly something of a make-or-break situation for encouraging theatre goers to experience something a little different.

Without a doubt, the ploy paid off. The opening night saw a full studio theatre and the audience all but went a little crazy with their appreciation at the end.

On paper, it sounds like a less-than-fun show. We join Piaf (played by Elizabeth Mansfield), confused, on the edge of madness and in need of a drink, having a rehearsal with her pianist for a show that night. We learn of her life, her sadness, her guilt and her bitterness in between the songs which both define ‘The Little Sparrow’ and reflect on her story as she reveals it to the ever-patient pianist. Heavy? Yes, but like Piaf herself, the production is light and ethereal without being trivial. It’s wrong to call the exposure of such a tormented soul a joy yet, somehow, it was - from beginning to end.

Mansfield (who helped devise the production) is supremely convincing as Piaf and sings the songs so perfectly that I’m not entirely sure I don’t prefer the actor to the original. Bridgman I’ve seen many times before at TBTL and I’m beginning to hate him: how can one person be so outrageously talented and yet so unassuming? His skills on the piano astonished me, yet so did the quality of his (silent) acting; he’s just too good. The set design, visual and sound effects were on point and gave us both information we needed to know and illuminated the world inside the crazed performer’s head superbly.

Piaf 4 - Elizabeth Mansfield (Edith Piaf). Photo by Robert DayPiaf 4 - Elizabeth Mansfield (Edith Piaf). Photo by Robert Day

Particular mention, however, must go to the translation of the French songs into English by Steve Trafford. I was dubious how this would work; it seemed especially wrong to sing Non, Je ne regrette rien in English to me. In practice, the English translations were brilliant and helped bring alive not just the hardships of Piaf’s life but also how shocking the lyrics really were with their stories of lust, prostitution and women used by men - astonishing from a performer the bulk of whose career was before the 1960s. Cleverly, Piaf’s aforementioned swansong was left in French and used to bring the show to a perfect end.

There’s no doubt that this production is going to appeal to an older audience yet so powerful is the combination of Mansfield’s sublime portrayal and the timeless joy of Piaf’s songs that even someone ‘too young’ to have heard of this sparrow or recognise the tunes is very likely to be moved and come away thoroughly delighted.

Hymn to Love – Homage to Piaf runs until Tue 10 April before touring across Cumbria, then transferring to York Theatre Royal and finally to London’s Jermyn Street Theatre. For more information on the production visit theatrebythelake.com. To book call Box Office on 017687 74411.

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