If you like great music, incredible acting and a mesmerising story – there’s a new play in town which’ll be right up your street. PIAF, which launched at the Bridewell Theatre last week, is based on the life of French singer and actress Édith Piaf, who shot to fame in the 40s. We dropped by to chat to leading actress Cameron Leigh, who plays Piaf, and supporting actress Valerie Cutko, who plays her best friend Marlene Dietrich.
For those unfamiliar with Piaf, who is she and why is her story so special?
Cameron: She is an iconic French singer from Paris, who was born into dreadful circumstances. She lived in the real slums of Paris and rose to fame with her incredible voice. Her rise to fame from nothing to everything is marvellous really.
What aspects of her character do you feel you identify with?
Cameron: I think her feistiness maybe, and her ambition. I think we all feel that we want to be noticed as human beings and I can identify with that. I’m very fond of her.
During the play, do you have any favourite moments? And are there any key moments the audience will really relate to?
Cameron: I think at the end of Act 1. There’s a song called Mon Dieu. There’s a tragic moment, and I think her life kind of spiralled down from there. I’m hoping the audience will feel that; the song is a really beautiful song. There’s lots of funny moments too!
What made you decide to get into performing?
Cameron: As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to do it. I remember dressing up in my mum’s clothes when I was little, trying to be Lana Turner and all these incredible movie stars. Musicals was what I wanted to do; it’s what I’ve always done. I can’t do anything else!
Piaf is quite an inspirational and empowering female performer to look back at. Are you inspired by her within your own career?
Cameron: So much. She was so incredible. Kind of an impossible act to follow. So I’ve tried to do my best at a portrayal of her and her life – she’s a very inspiring woman. Her strength, and how she bounced back from everything is the key.
What makes this production of Piaf’s life different from the traditional?
Cameron: I don’t think there’ve been too many versions done, so this is quite fresh for London. Jari (Jari Laakso, Director) is wonderful in the sense that he really gives actors creative space. He allows us to make our choices and use our instincts and work on those.
Valerie: As far as this production goes, there are several things which I think make it unique as a production. One is our setting here at the Bridewell Theatre, which is an amazing space. It’s a fluid play, which moves from one scene to the next with very basic scenery. All of the characters are played by a small company of actors. The men particularly take on many different roles.
Do you think this environment and this theatre will bring something different?
Cameron: I love working in smaller theatres. It’s my favourite thing. It’s more intimate and I think you connect so much easier with an audience, their experience is so much more profound than in a big theatre. It’s a special experience coming to a small theatre to see work.
How does Piaf’s character shine?
Valerie: I’m sure Cameron will agree, she was an extremely complex figure, tremendously charismatic and generous and in other ways – like all addicts – manipulative, using, cruel, thoughtless, selfish. We portray those that she loves and those that she discards, those that she uses and those that love her terribly. And all of that comes from a small company of actors.
Cameron: In a way, it’s a real ensemble piece. Piaf is the centre of the wheel, but everybody is doing so much throughout that it does feel like an ensemble piece at times.
Ahead of opening, how are you feeling?
Valerie: I think we’re in good shape! Cameron, from the very beginning, has been prepared, committed and brilliant. She’s a perfect Piaf and it’s an epic story. As you say, it’s really fun as well. There’s a lot of humour. It’s fast-moving.
Cameron: It’s going to be nice to have a bit of a crowd and see what works, what they find interesting and funny.
One reason why people should come along and see the show:
Cameron: For an incredibly talented cast.
Valerie: I would say for a moving, committed, extraordinary, charismatic central performance by Piaf. She’s amazing. And we’re all good too! We should also make sure we credit our brilliant Musical Director, Isaac McCullough, who will be terrorising the West End in a very short time. If you like Piaf and you like that period of music, come here and listen as well as to watch.
And finally, do you have any favourite places to visit when you’re performing in London?
Cameron: Museum of London and The V&A – I love them. It’s always nice to wander round a gallery or a museum.
Valerie: I like the little pocket parks that you find in Southwark and in the City. As you go into the oldest parts of London you can still find those little churchyards.
PIAF, presented by Gillian Tan and Blackwinged Creatives, has already received a number of 4-star reviews for the powerful performance it brings to life. Don’t hesitate to get your tickets here! Showing until the 14th November at the Bridewell Theatre, Bride Lane, and not to be missed!