Piaf

Christine Bovill's emotional tribute to the famous French chanteuse leaves the Black Box in tears

The Belfast boheme are out of their garrets in droves for the little sparrow at the Black Box this afternoon. The demi-monde has gussied itself up for Christine Bovill’s Piaf, a celebration in song and story of the life and work of that most emblematic of French singers.

There is cause for celebration too, as this year is the centenary of Piaf’s birth, and the Out to Lunch festival the first date in Christine Bovill’s enviably busy 2015 diary.

The Parisian waif with the enormous voice and little black dress that is definitely not Chanel can prove divisive among non Francophone audiences, but as a symbol of France, Piaf is up there with the Eiffel tower, shrugging and adultery – she is une grande fromage.

The stage is bare but for a microphone and a Rhodes piano. This is a stripped down, intimate affair: a singer and her songs. But what songs, and what an extraordinary singer. Bovill, thankfully, doesn’t dress up as Piaf – this is no Stars in their Eyes karaoke nonsense.

Bovill doesn’t sound much like Piaf, either – as she launches into the first song, 'Padam...Padam...' it becomes clear that her voice is a lower, huskier instrument; there is an aching sensuality to it, a smokiness that lends these songs an authenticity.

She sounds as though she could have lived the stories in these songs. Her eyes are large and expressive, permanently poised on the edge of tears and framed with a thick layer of kohl, forever on the point of bursting their banks and raking her cheeks with tears. There is passion here, commitment. Bovill means it.

'I am from a little town north of Paris called Glasgow,' she intones after the first song. It’s a funny line, and sounds throwaway, but that is Bovill’s skill as a performer – Piaf is very much a play.

As well as the songs, which obviously form the spine of the performance, there is a narrative: the life of Piaf intertwined with Bovill's own teenage obsession with the singer, which saw her change from a teenage oddball – 'I was a devotee of rare jazz sides growing up in 80s Glasgow. You can imagine how popular I was' – who had no interest in French at all, to learning the language and ultimately becoming a French teacher, to performing with the composer of 'Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien', Charles Dumont, at the Edinburgh Fringe last year.

Then there are the songs themselves. We don’t just saunter blindly into them, we get the story: 'L’Accordeoniste' – Piaf’s first million seller in 1955, and the first to firmly plant the theme of tragedy into her set (it would never leave) – tells the story of a young Montmartre prostitute who falls in love with an accordionist in a worker’s cafe. He is promptly conscripted into the army and killed in the war and she returns to the streets, broken-hearted.

Bovill conveys the pathetic nature of the song with few gestures, her voice carrying all before her, its honeyed subtleties wringing pathos from every line. Forget the ululating gymnastics of The X Factor or The Voice, this is how you sell a song.

It helps that these songs are worth examining, worth inhabiting. These chanson from France’s golden age of song are perfect realist vignettes, complete with flawed protagonists and a dangerous predisposition for doomed romance. They’re like Zola but you can sing along on the chorus.

I find myself weeping during 'La Vie En Rose'. There’s nothing you can do – you have to give yourself up to the waves of raw emotion pouring off the stage. 'People go home after my shows and put on Leonard Cohen records to cheer themselves up,' Bovill wisecracks at one point.

'La Foule' sweeps you up as helplessly as its protagonists, forced by a carnival crowd to act out a love story in the lifetime of a song, before being torn away by the same crowd, never to meet one another again. Bovill does Jacques Brel’s 'Fils de' flitting back and forth between English and French with astounding ease.

There is something exhilarating about seeing a performance of this calibre. There is nothing mechanical here, nothing jars, and all is fluidity and ease. 'Milord' and 'Mon Dieu' drift by on the most Gallic chord progressions imaginable. At this point a glass of port is delivered to the stage for Bovill and her exemplary accompanist, Jenny Redmond. 'Pavarotti used to swear by it,' we are told.

The finale is, of course, 'Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien'. It is Piaf’s signature song, a defiant epitaph (amazingly, she first recorded it only three years before she died). I can’t say it’s my favourite of her songs but it is delivered here with astounding passion and energy, Bovill tempering the stridency of the original with a little of her own warmth.

As the song ends the entire audience is on its feet, actually penning Bovill onto the stage, making it impossible for her to leave. She looks exhausted, moved and very, very happy. We all do.

Out To Lunch continues in the Black Box, Belfast until January 25.

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