Edith Piaf - A Celebration of a Legend

Music and make believe bring 1940s' Paris to Belfast's Spiegeltent 

Decadence is in, don’t-cha-know? These days in fair Belfast City, you can’t go out without running into a burlesque show, or a candlelit cabaret performance. It appears that audiences want something more refined, classier, but with a little bit of extra sauce, just for good measure.

And what better location in which to find that illicit thrill than the Spiegletent, Custom House Square, the absolute hit of the Belfast Festival for the last two years. 

The Spiegletent is the kind of venue that transforms a performance, adds glamour and atmosphere, transports both audience and performer into a different place and mindframe. And surely there could be no better match for the Spiegletent’s decadent mystery than Edith Piaf, French national icon and ill-fated musical legend.

Piaf remains an enigmatic and alluring figure, representing a link to a forgotten era of beauty and tragedy. Her death, in 1963, brought an end to a life marked by alcohol, drugs and sadness, but her legacy lives on to this day, her magnificent recorded output remaining a touchstone for doomed love and tragic affairs of the heart.

English jazz vocalist Tina May is charged with the task of interpreting Piaf's music within the confines of the Spielgletent. Audience members of varying ages gather round candlelit tables, sipping glasses of wine and soaking up the atmosphere as May and her band take to the stage. 

French accordion, piano and double bass languidly stretch out in search of the right mood. May, resplendent in little black dress, immediately captures the attention of the audience, her voice reminiscient of Piaf, yet distinctive in its own right. The band provide the perfect anchor for her articulations of Piaf’s tortured soul, with piano and accordion leading the way.

Almost immediately it becomes evident that there is an unspoken agreement between audience and performer: that being 'let’s all pretend this is real'. All the big guns are unleashed, with ‘La Vie Un Rose’ and ‘Non, Je ne Regrette Rien’ falling upon receptive ears. 

There’s a certain irony in the sense that the audience appear to be taking part in a massive game of make-believe, pretending that we’ve been transported back in time to a decadent French cabaret club, leaving the 'shallow' and 'false' modern age behind.

But that fits perfectly with the spirit of the evening, as both the themed Spiegletent and May are unquestionably not the real thing, rather the safe and acceptable versions of what came before. 

We don’t want real pain and suffering from this performance, and we don’t get it. Instead, the audience are transported far away from a wet and windy Belfast night to an exotic and alluring location, loaded with possibilities. Yes, it’s escapism, but of the best possible kind.

As the performance comes to an end, the audience filter out of the Spiegletent into the cold and dark of Belfast city centre. Collars are turned up to the wind, cigarettes ignited. And just for a moment, the river Lagan becomes the Seine, Belfast Paris in the decadent 1940's and 50's. Looking back, surely we have no regrets. 

Steven Rainey