Jenna Russell on bringing the story of French icon Edith Piaf to life at Leeds Playhouse

Jenna Russell is in a good place right now. Or, as she puts it, she has, “a smile on my face, hope in my heart and seventeen-thousand-tonnes of make-up on.”

Jenna Russell in the title role of Piaf, which is on at Leeds Playhouse.(Picture: Marc Brenner).
Jenna Russell in the title role of Piaf, which is on at Leeds Playhouse.(Picture: Marc Brenner).

It seems like the character she’s playing on stage this month has seeped into her – it’s the sort of pithy comment you might have expected to hear from Edith Piaf

Russell, the Olivier and Tony Award nominated actor with a fascinating CV is taking on the role of the ‘Little Sparrow’ in the Pam Gems play, Piaf, which tells the story of the world-conquering French chanteuse.

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“You don’t often get these roles where you go on stage and don’t leave for two hours. It’s wonderful, incredibly tiring, but it’s a real privilege because you can really take the audience with you on a whole journey,” says Russell. It is quite the journey.

Jenna Russell, as Edith Piaf, and Louis Gaunt, as Theo, in Piaf. (Picture: Marc Brenner).

Gems wrote the play for its 1978 premiere at the RSC. From there it transferred to London’s West End before going to Broadway in 1981, earning the original lead Jane Lapotaire a Tony Award.

Russell, who stars in the play at Leeds Playhouse this month, explains: “It’s a play, but she has all these brilliant songs, I was adamant about not keeping it all in French.

“I’ve seen the play previously and when she sings in French I always feel a little bit ‘oh I don’t know what’s going on’. Piaf recorded a lot of songs in English and in French, but we swap to give people an idea of what the songs are about.

“They are so brilliant and strong, she sang about the dark side of Paris and prostituion and aching for love. Songs were written for her, singing about despair and clinging on to life and struggle.”

Edith Piaf was born in 1915 and her early years were hard. Her mother, a café singer, abandoned her and she was taken in by her grandmother, who reared her in a brothel. She started out as a nightclub singer in 1935, the same year she made her stage debut. Her passionate rendition of songs made her famous.

The play doesn’t shy away from the colourful antics of the titular hero, taking in her life as an alcoholic who also worked as a prostitute, used drugs and in one controversial scene in the play, urinates in public – shocking for a 1970s audience.

“Her mum and dad worked in the circus and she went to live with her granny who ran a brothel, grew up in a brothel with all the prostitutes, she’d literally sing for her breakfast, and mixed doing that with prostitution,” says Russell.

“Someone heard her singing and gave her a shot in a nightclub and she was an overnight sensation. Pam Gems wanted to write the story of this working class girl who became a working class woman, a self-made woman which was a difficult thing to be.

She lost the great love of her life, she was riddled with arthritis, even though she died quite young, she looked and seemed like a little old lady – it was a tragic end to an extraordinary life.

“But, she lived life to the full and had no regrets.”

Of course we have to discuss it and Russell provides the perfect segue. It is the musical equivalent of Hamlet’s to be or not to be: when you’re playing Edith Piaf on stage and recreating some of her songs, at some point you’re going to have to tackle Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien.

“It’s a big song, for sure,” Russell admits. “I have two feelings when I get to that song and it’s why singing it makes me quite emotional. I’ve spent the last year singing it around the house and trying to learn it and my little girl has been making fun of me, so I think about her.

“But I also have a strong memory of my dad, who was a cab driver. He had a jukebox and Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien was one of the songs on it. When I was a little girl I’d hear him play it and think ‘what is this?’ So I have the memory of me as a little girl hearing my dad play it and now I think about my daughter, at a similar age, hearing me sing it, so that’s why it makes me so emotional.”

While La Vie En Rose was another famous song Piaf performed, and one that gave the title to the Oscar-winning movie about the French performer in 2007, it is Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien that really cements Piaf’s place in popular culture.

“It’s a brilliant anthem for all the good things I’ve done, all the bad things, I regret nothing. It’s a great song, a powerhouse of a song. It comes at a really beautiful part of the storytelling of the play,” says Russell.

Speaking of great songs, Russell’s aforementioned fascinating CV includes playing a girlfriend of Reece Dinsdale’s in the popular sitcom Home to Roost, but the thing that cements her place in sitcom history will surely come in useful in a pub quiz at some point.

“Yes, they do still use my version but I only know that because my old man tells me, I’m not sure I’ve ever really watched Red Dwarf,” says Russell. Something of a revelation, given that she is the voice who sang the cult space-set sitcom’s theme tune.

For now, she’s delighted to be singing live again. “It’s so lovely for all of us to be doing what we do. The actors, dancers and stage crew, the people front of house, box office staff, none of us have been working. If you work in a building then you got furlough, but most actors I know didn’t get a penny, any help at all.

“We’ve been living a very precarious life and that’s difficult when you have families to feed.”

For all kinds of reasons, playing Piaf, then, is an emotional rollercoaster.

Piaf runs at the Courtyard Theatre at Leeds Playhouse, to August 7. For ticket information call 0113 213 7700 or visit leedsplayhouse.org.uk