- July 19, 2021
Andrew Farr embodies the spirit of Edith Piaf in his acclaimed one person show. Latest talks to him about his passion for the iconic French chanteuse.
Piaf is clearly a performer with whom you have formed a great bond but when did you first fall in love with the diminutive French chanteuse?
Happily I can name the actual date: 27 November 1971. On an appearance on Desert Island Discs Joan Collins’ picked Piaf singing Milord. I was listening. I was hooked. Piaf’s voice cut through the airways and enthralled and entranced me. I’ve been under her spell ever since.
So that early exposure to her songs and her voice was the first stepping stone that later led you to a residency in a Paris bar, how did that come about?
As part of my degree studies in French & History, I spent a year studying in Paris. On a night out for a friend’s 21st we stumbled across Chez Babette, a down-at-heel diner in Paris 18th arrondissement. They had a pianist. They let me sing. They asked me back. They wouldn’t put me on the payroll me as they already paid the pianist. They would however let me circulate a hat at the end of the evening and keep the contents. There were sufficient Francs amongst the Gitanes cigarette butts. Edith would have loved it.
In those early performances did you already have that unique style and tone?
I learnt by mimicking her style, standing by the side of the record player from the age of 7 onwards. I didn’t know French, I just copied the sound, ‘felt’ where it came from, and was so pleased when I first rolled an R! Many hours were spent at this. To this day I find it easier to learn a song in French, than one in English.
From those Paris days how long was it before you realised that you had the makings of a full length biographical entertainment?
It was always something of a party piece in those restaurants where they don’t mind the odd song later in the evening. I last performed at Chez Babette in 1984, and Piaf started here in the 2018 Fringe – that’s quite a hiatus. It was joining the BrightonGMC, in 2010, which gave me back some confidence, and then seeing the jazz singer Tina May perform a selection of Piaf’s songs at Shoreham Ropetackle. Between two of the numbers Tina related a story about the towers of court shoes that were left in the Pere Lachaise Cemetery at Piaf’s funeral: a rather large penny-dropped…Piaf’s life lends itself very easily to anecdotes and drama.
Having seen the show, I am aware that is packed with detail, some of which is positive but you are also not shy of revealing her faults. How did you research the play and were some of those truths hard to work into what is clearly a work full of admiration?
Piaf had a wicked sense of humour and lived a largely unshockable life. The fact that she passed away in ’63 means there’s perhaps some historical distance too – and I try to soften the edges with humour. I’m currently working on a Shirley Bassey play, and there’s difficult territory to cover there too: but she’s a living and very private and popular person, so that’s proving nigh-on impossible. Sources? They were all the broadcast clips of Piaf that I could find, and biographies by Carolyn Burke, Margaret Crosland and David Loosely. There are a lot of myths which Piaf did nothing but encourage, so truth and legend are sometimes difficult to distinguish in such a chaotic life.
You are a seasoned vocalist, working in ensemble choirs and as a soloist. How hard is it for you to recreate Piaf’s rasping tone, does it actually hurt your voice or does it come easy?
Critics have been known to say that Piaf was under the note and off the beat: that suits me just fine, just ask the BGMC Chorus Director. In fairness the critics were referring to her later live performances when she was very, very unwell. For me it seems to come easy; it’s been there the best part of 50 years.
Piaf’s catalogue of songs is immense, ranging from the street songs of her impoverished childhood, through Parisian cabaret classic and some self penned. How difficult was it to choose which to sing and which to omit?
Difficult, but made easier by the fact that I work from backing tracks, which rather informs what I can perform. It tends to be the later, more well-known numbers: and I’m forever juggling which 2 of these three to include: Padam, La Foule and L’Accordeoniste. My personal favourites don’t, I feel, travel particularly well, and backing tracks for them are rare.
Do you ever tire of singing the most popular numbers?
Never. I’m just relieved if I get them right. I take some comfort in the fact that recordings show that Piaf got tripped up by them on occasion, even after singing them for all those years. They are tricky, wordy and fast.
Are there any songs that you would love to have included but in terms of timings and balance have had to leave out?
Comme Moi, Emporte-moi, Heureuse and Je Suis a Toi. Fabulous songs, but really for an avid fan-base. They’re not the well known, hum-them-on-the-way-out tunes.
Audiences might be surprised to find that a theatrical and vocal tribute to Edith Piaf would be delivered by a man. Did this worry you when creating the show?
It didn’t worry me because I’ve inhabited Piaf for so very long. To be honest, it’s more of a surprise that I’m from Stoke and playing Piaf. I just try my best to inhabit the role. The fact that it’s man playing woman doesn’t really register with me.
There is a certain gender ambiguity to your performance and also in your costume, was this intentional?
Gender neutrality wasn’t necessarily what I was aiming for, as such. I wanted to create an illusion of Piaf and for me gender neutral was the best way of achieving that.
Are any of the traits displayed by Piaf echoed in your own life?
Piaf’s myth, legend, life really does seem to be a unique one. I can’t say there’s too much of an overlap save for a love for Paris, the feeling of hope that a blue sky brings, and her taste in men.
There is in the end such sadness in Piaf’s life, addictions, failed affairs and financial chaos, but until her death she remained a star on both sides of the Atlantic, can you sum up in a few words what made her so iconic?
Her indomitable spirit: she battled for herself, and her audience of little people, against all the odds. And her voice remains unique – it has become a symbol of Paris and of France, not just for the French but for so many different nationalities. It’s her whole heart that she puts into it.
And finally what should audiences expect from your Pigalle to Pier evening at PierFest on Brighton Palace Pier?
A thoroughly French evening, with the left-bank jazz sounds of Lo Polidoro, with whom the audience might be familiar from Sundays at the Paris House, and the story of a little woman with a big voice and a huge heart.
Piaf On The Pier at PierFest with Andrew Farr and Lo Polidoro
PierFest on Brighton Palace Pier
25 July 8pm