Hymn to Love: Homage to Piaf

Elizabeth Mansfield in Hymn To Love, photo by Hugo Glendinning

Elizabeth Mansfield in Hymn To Love, photo by Hugo Glendinning

York Theatre Royal and Theatre by the Lake present Hymn to Love, a dedicated ode to Edith Piaf’s life and later years framed as the rehearsal for her final concert. Songs are interspersed with fond and poignant memories retold by Piaf (Elizabeth Mansfield) to her pianist (Patrick Bridgman); “silent only in word”.

No strangers to the Piaf biopic, Mansfield and director Damian Cruden have honed this production to a pinhole focus on the singer’s life after the death of Marcel Cerdan; indeed the experience is that of a real-time evening run-up to the concert spotted with haunting memories (of herself, of Marcel). A poetic, emotional script overlays an ashen, teary-eyed watercolour set. The effect is the stifling purgatory of mourning; aesthetic comfort and eternal loneliness. The action and text is lead by Piaf’s train of thought, left to her own devices, though it cultivates a warm affection between her and the pianist.

“When you’re blind, you can feel everything.”

She pads barefoot across plush cream carpet, hunches on a chair like a fragile bird among dustsheets and minimalist remnants, her studious pianist providing the pliant audience she commands. There is a sense that this is one of a very select few energies the star will tolerate at this point in her life. The dialogue reflects the air of the privileged voyeur; this is a show for committed Piaf fans over newcomers.

The songs are performed mostly in English, translated by writer Steve Trafford, with the exception of the most famous and climactic Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. Early on, we connect yearningly to Piaf’s vital charm and heartfelt vulnerability. As the show continues into the concert itself we are slightly more alienated; once more in an auditorium rather than the rehearsal room. This is supplemented by projections of the real Piaf, now illuminating larger than life all the ways in which our star is not the face we thought we knew.

There is no question of the talent on stage – Mansfield and Bridgman deftly sail through the numbers in perfect sync with one another, the former having perfected the quality of Piaf’s voice and intonation without feigning an awkward accent. Her energy is magnetic. The staging, however, requires more dynamism and structure to enable the script to survive as a piece of storytelling, and the finale lacks clout – perhaps this will always be the case with such ingrained items of our cultural reference.

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