The show involved May introducing each chanson with a little biographical anecdote on Piaf. The evening transpired in many respects to be a beginners’ guide to Piaf, with just enough detail to appreciate the history behind the song and the character of the writer/performer. For me, not overly familiar with her story, this was a welcome overview. May clearly feels a genuine affection for the chanteuse, having herself lived and studied in Paris, and her performance came across as a true tribute – you did not get the impression that May was using the current interest in Piaf (largely generated by the film La Vie En Rose) to draw in an audience.
Piaf is renowned for having lived a troubled and complex life, and her intense performances are clearly borne out of her experiences – she sang what she knew. May’s versions of the more famous Piaf pieces are masterful, though there is a palpable lack of authentic torment. This cannot be a criticism, as May often urges the audience to consider Piaf’s more playful side and appreciate that she perhaps shouldn’t be remembered only as a short, French, angst-ridden soul. The fact that May fails to match Piaf’s palpable suffering does take a vital edge off the music, though the songs remain sometimes catchy and often very moving.
For an evening’s entertainment I wasn’t convinced that the show was satisfying. Apart from May, three musicians remained on stage throughout the evening, performing two instrumental numbers. They were undoubtedly consummate professionals, but they lacked charisma; you felt that they would have been happier if you weren’t watching them. May was conversely extremely eager to engage with the audience and demonstrate not only her vocal talents but also her aptitude as a comedienne. This was a somewhat bumpy contrast.
The show was pleasant but would have been brilliant if it had been put on in an underground jazz café where the audience could have enjoyed it over a couple of glasses of cheap plonk amidst soft chatter and a haze of Gauloises smoke.