Hymn to Love
Jermyn Street Theatre
Reviewed – 27th July 2018
“she naturally embodies her physicality and vulnerability with an ease that allows her to take full command of the material”
Since her death in 1963, Edith Piaf has become one of the most celebrated performers of the twentieth century, and there has been no shortage of biographies and films and tribute shows that have studied her life in various forms. “Hymn to Love”, by dint of being a pared down interpretation focusing on a particular moment in the singer’s life, succeeds where others may have failed in terms of clarity and believability.
“I’m singing tonight. There’s nothing else. Nothing but singing” says Piaf. We are in a Manhattan hotel room where she is rehearsing for her last US concert. But for Piaf the hotel holds memories. Eight years earlier she had telephoned her lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, begging him to overcome his fear of flying and leave France to be with her. Hours later she heard the terrible news that his plane had crashed. Marcel was dead.
Elizabeth Mansfield, who devised the production with Annie Castledine and Steve Trafford, does not attempt to impersonate Piaf, but instead she naturally embodies her physicality and vulnerability with an ease that allows her to take full command of the material.
The show is foremost a succession of greatest hits, interspersed with monologue that, by necessity, strays from the focus of her memories of Marcel Cerdan and drifts into the usual exposition of her early life, trying to connect it to the song lyrics. Although, refreshingly, much of the time it doesn’t feel like a monologue. Patrick Bridgman accompanies on piano and, without saying a word throughout, manages to act and react to Mansfield’s narrative so that we don’t feel like we’re in a one woman show.
Midway through the show we leave the rehearsal room and we are at the concert for which she has been rehearsing. The chat stops, and we are in full performance mode where the songs come across with greater authenticity, and we catch a glimpse of the real drama in Mansfield’s homage to Piaf. Fifteen of Piaf’s songs are performed over the ninety minutes, including the old favourites “La Vie En Rose’, ‘Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien’, ‘Milord’ and, of course the eponymous ‘Hymne à l’Amour’.
But there is something missing. It is generally accepted that Marcel Cerdan was the great love of Piaf’s life, and that she would never really recover from the loss. She blamed herself for Cerdan’s untimely death and fell into a deep drug and alcohol-fuelled depression. It was all too much for the already fragile and tortured artist; and this is what is lost in Mansfield’s slightly unchallenging portrayal. She does not always capture the thrill, or the chill of Piaf’s persona: it is often difficult to imagine the heartbreak and the torment. Likewise, some of the English lyrics lack the melodrama inherent in the original French, so that what is gained in Mansfield’s hauntingly authentic interpretation of the songs is slightly lost in translation.
This is a faithful hymn to Piaf’s later years which needs, however, just a touch more dynamism in the staging for Mansfield’s performance to fully take flight.
Reviewed by Jonathan Evans
Photography by Robert Day
Hymn to Love
Jermyn Street Theatre until 18th August