My first memory of Edith Piaf was in a grade seven French immersion classroom. Our teacher bribed us with prizes to make us memorize the words to different French language songs. Among them were the warblings of Mme. Piaf’s “Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.” It amused us to no end to try and mimic her distinctive sound.
Piaf: Love Conquers All is a one-woman powerhouse performance that tells Piaf’s story; from the lows of her humble beginnings to the heights of international stardom and all the joys and the sorrows that entailed.
Naomi Emmerson as Piaf speaks to the audience as if they are guests in her Parisian apartment. It is an intimate conversation, as if between new friends, and Emmerson is very much at home in the role.
Emmerson is a dynamic performer and effortlessly recounts her first romantic experiences and singing for money on the streets. The memories are often dark, but Piaf does not linger on the bad times. She wants nothing more to be happy and she is happy when she sings. As the show progresses, we learn that to sing, she must be in love.
Pianist Yan Li ably plays Piaf’s music to provide the backdrop to her life and when the last of the 13 songs is done, so is the story. Along with her most famous song “La Vie En Rose,” the other 12 are beautifully rendered by Emmerson.
That the songs are in French, is no barrier to the audience. Less important than the actual lyrics of the music, is Emmerson’s emotional delivery. Her voice communicates that which is truly important, the humanity behind the music.
The black and white simplicity of the angled set gives the impression of an unfinished canvas, and Piaf attempts to fill in the details with the colour of her memories. Accents of red are haphazardly placed around as well, and these elements artfully come together to finish Piaf’s account.
It’s not a fairy-tale story with a happy ending, being based in reality, but Emmerson never falls into the trap of trying to play a martyr. She wears her flaws proudly on her sleeve, unfinished or not. Emmerson’s portrayal is moving and true.
The search for love is definitely the theme of both the show and of Piaf’s life. She was involved with many men, but only laid claim to loving a select few. That her loves always seemed to end in tragedy is not relevant. She has lived her life fully, made some terrible choices, but in the end she regrets nothing.