Presented by I’ll Wager Productions
Reviewed 17th March, 2018
In the 55 years since Edith Piaf’s death, the number of people who have heard her perform live has dwindled. Today, her devotees have to be content with recordings, some film clips, and Michaela Burger. In the uncompromising Octagon venue, with its 400 appalling seats, Burger and her associate artist, Greg Wain, transformed the arena into an intimate French cabaret space as they recounted the life, loves and songs of La Môme Piaf.
You don’t need French to follow the story. Michaela Burger’s French is excellent, but the way that she and Wain have structured the show helps English-only ears to understand each song. Some songs are sung in both English and French. The spoken material evidences broad scholarly research into Piaf, and Burger’s acting delivers a horde of entertaining characters who peopled the life of the great French chanteuse. A tight-lipped mother, a long-suffering sister, a frustrated impresario, a passionate songwriter – we see and hear them all. Burger’s voice, face and body become each one.
When Berger speaks about Piaf, she uses her own neutral accent; when she speaks as Piaf, she speaks as Piaf spoke English, but with great care to ensure that she is understood at all times. Her acting portrayal of Piaf is physically strong and disciplined; as Piaf, her body changes, her face changes, and her hands are constantly in tension. And, just like Piaf, there are knives in her singing voice. Burger’s excellent theatre training is always evident.
In case the audience fears a protracted biography of dates and facts, Burger does a party-piece early in the show, entitled “The early life of Edith Piaf in one minute”. It’s entertainingly performed at race-call speed, and with exquisite clarity, to guitar underscore.
A word about her associate artist. Tall, dark-suited, playing guitar whilst perched on a stool for the best part of the show, Greg Wain is no mere accompanist. His musicianship is extraordinary. He offers subtle and surprising harmonic and rhythmic variants on old favourites, plays guitar like a jazz dream, and sings Autumn Leaves (Les Feuilles mortes) in a fine-grained, nuanced voice that breaks your heart.
OK, so you get to hear Hymne à l’amour, La Vie en rose, Non, je ne regrette rien, Milord, Padam… padam…, L’Accordéoniste, Mon legionnaire, and more. This show is so much more than a “best of” singalong. Powered by the fierce spirit, uncompromising steam-hammer voice and monstrous presence of Piaf as embodied by Michaela Burger, the event becomes the celebration of a revenant.
Reviewed by Pat. H. Wilson
Rating out of 5: 5 stars