Reviews: Portraits in Song

Review by: What's On Stage

Portraits in Song at Greenwich Theatre, London

WOS Rating * * * *

Elizabeth Mansfield is a brave soul. For the past few years, she has toured successfully in a succession of one-woman musical shows, and indeed, not so long ago, was nominated for an Olivier award for her performance as Marie Lloyd.

Her current presentation serves up thumb-nail sketches of the lives and times of singer Edith Piaf and writer, Bertolt Brecht, skillfully combining a straight-to-audience approach with songs with which each was memorably associated. The evening is a first-person, autobiographical account of the principal events in their lives, yet it is more too.

The words are so elegantly constructed that this is much more than a standard 'and then I met' bio-formula. Mansfield and her co-writer, Steve Trafford, (who also translated the Piaf lyrics), manage to get to the heart and soul of their subjects, and the songs are so skillfully interwoven that they truly add to the story.

Piaf and Brecht sound like an improbable pairing – Piaf the street singer and sometime prostitute who wore her heart on her sleeve, and Brecht, the disenchanted and intellectual product of a bourgeois upbringing. Yet in the way they are presented by Mansfield, they appear as two sides of the same coin. Piaf brought her chansons, stories of love and loss, from the Parisian street to the middle classes, Brecht was the converse, analysing and theatricalising his cynicism. Mansfield presents both in a form that makes them accessible to the masses.

It is a fascinating mix and is performed impeccably by Mansfield in a minimalist cabaret setting, accompanied only by her musical director, Russell Churney, whose piano takes centre stage. During the first half of the evening, Mansfield makes no attempt, in the nine (largely familiar) songs to impersonate Piaf's tremulous gargle, but instead concentrates on a meaningful reading of the excellent English lyrics, which in themselves offer little pleasures in their internal rhymes and unlikely metre. Her version of "Milord" is outstanding.

The Brecht songs are equally well, if not better, performed. The dozen on offer are the usual Weill/Eisler suspects, derived from Brecht's musical plays, but no less welcome as a result. Mansfield brings the necessary hard edge as well as a sentimental side to the familiar jerky melodies, the words (also in excellent translations) being a priority. "Mack the Knife" (which opens this half of the set) is performed in what can only be described as a sinister growl and prowl round the piano. It was a joy to behold, as was Surabaya Johnny and Alabama Song.

If one was to be in the least critical, I'd suggest more movement from the performer would have been an advantage. As a trained dancer, Mansfield is a natural mover, and shaking a leg or two at appropriate moments would not have gone amiss. Otherwise, a glorious evening for lovers of this type of entertainment.

Stephen Gilchrist

Review by: Bristol Evening Post

Portraits in Song at Bristol Old Vic, New Vic Studio

Elizabeth Mansfield’s solo performance of Edith Piaf and Bertolt Brecht’s songs and experiences is polished and skillful. She has a rich, buttery voice that draws us into her performance as she revels in the poetry of the pieces. With an impressive range and some lively playing – especially of the Brecht numbers – Mansfield more than demonstrates why she was nominated for a ‘Best Actress in a Musical’ Olivier Award. As a big fan of Brecht/Kurt Weill’s work, Mansfield’s colourful rendition of much of his best work was a rare treat.

Vicky Frost

Review by: British Theatre Guide

Portraits in Song at New End Theatre, Hampstead

She was one of France's most loved singers and a national icon. He was a German poet, playwright, and theatrical reformer, both knew fame in their lifetime. Edith Piaf (1915-1963) experienced social ills, and Berthold Brecht (1898-1956) observed and wrote about them. They seem an unlikely pair to share a stage but pulling on opposite ends of the social ladder they touched common notes on a not dissimilar scale. Each was successful despite their indifference to social norms. They are both ingeniously portrayed by Elizabeth Mansfield in 95 minutes of song and dramatised monologue.

Edith Piaf's life story unravels in the ensemble of some of her best known ballads. Accompanied on the piano by Russell Churney, Elizabeth Mansfield sings and presents a life replete with hardship, loss, love despair and above all resilience of a legend whose driving force is encapsulated in her signature song Je ne regrette rien.

Piaf's mother was a street singer and a drug addict who showed no interest in new born child. Her father was an acrobat. On his return from the frontlines in First World War, he finds his baby daughter in a back room riddled with lice, rickets and blind. He hands her over to the care of his mother, who ran a brothel at Bernay in Normandy. There the prostitutes were kind to her. They liked having a young girl who they believed would 'bring them good luck'.

Piaf recovered her sight after a pilgrimage to Saint Thérèse de Lisieux and later rejoined her father in his acrobatic street performances where she learnt not only to pass the begging hat but also use her voice to attract an audience and their money. Three years later, at 17 she broke away from her father and learnt to appreciate her independence until her baby daughter Marcelle, died of meningitis aged two. Piaf had to sell her body for 10 Francs to pay for her little girl's funeral.

Mansfield's performance is stimulating. The songs and monologue unveil France's social ills. Though Piaf's life was lived in the 20th century, she could have easily been the main protagonist in a 19th century novel written by either Victor Hugo or Alexander Dumas.

This is a theme which neatly leads to the rogue Mack the Knife, a song composed by Kurt Weill with lyrics by Berthold Brecht for their Threepenny Opera (Die Dreigroschenoper, 1928).

Brecht's bourgeois background leaves the talented young man hungry for words. He uses angry words 'to slap the face of the Middle Classes'.

While Piaf sang of love, Brecht's songs aimed at making people think and not reach for their handkerchief 'and leave their brain behind'.'

In the First World War Brecht was fortunate to 'fail the call-up as a medical orderly'.

The Cannon Song from The Threepenny Opera follows and leads to the period of the Second World War where in Brecht's monologue we learn that, despite his loud protestation against social ills, he recalls watching a brown shirt clubbing a man, kicking him and 'I felt…Glad. Glad it wasn't me. Strange how your conscience is weakest at the moment you need it most'.

We learn nothing of Piaf during the Second World War but learn of Brecht's escape from his own country, Germany, because his wife was a Jewess.

In post war period, Piaf is rehearsing and performing in New York while Brecht has to escape from the House Committee on Un-American activities as his affiliation to the Communist movement categorized him as 'depraved, evil and insane'

The tension/attraction of the opposite sexes appears in Piaf's and Brecht's songs. It is fitting to end the show with La Goulante du Pauvre Jean:

You're a pauper, you're a king!
Without love, life don't mean a thing!

The applause at the end by the young audience of that evening demonstrates not only appreciation of Mansfield's adept performance but also the fact that the two great figures of European chanson and ballad still have an undying appeal.

Rivka Jacobson

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