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Performing Piaf: from Belfast to Paris, via Glasgow

Christine Bovill

Christine Bovill

From this Thursday (20th June), music lovers in Belfast will have no fewer than four opportunities to experience The Lyric Theatre feeling more like a cabaret hall of 1940s Paris, courtesy of Christine Bovill.

Bovill’s Edinburgh Festival smash hit Performing Piaf is a loving musical tribute to the soul-searing chansons of French singer Edith Piaf. The show arrives in the Lyric on Thursday, with an 8pm show, another at the same time on Friday and two shows on Saturday; a 3pm matinee and an 8pm performance.

For those who may not know, Piaf was an iconic singer in wartime France, famous as much for her nomadic background, wild lifestyle and tragic death, as she was for her gut-wrenchingly emotional songs and superb voice. 

Christine, a singer-songwriter and ex-teacher from Glasgow, became fascinated by Edith Piaf whilst quite young, when she discovered the song Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien. She has been singing Piaf’s songs for most of her life and Performing Piaf in its current format was brought to audiences in 2006.

Christine, performing the songs of Edith Piaf.

Christine, performing the songs of Edith Piaf.

I was lucky enough to catch Bovill’s show at last year’s Out to Lunch festival, reviewing it for the Belfast Telegraph.

The show is truly remarkable. The Scottish singer performs Piaf’s songs, chatting in between numbers about the French singer’s life and the subject matter of the songs, whilst cleverly working in details of her own story, and her relationship to the music of this famously tragic figure.

She left the air crackling with emotion. I gave her five stars.

When I was offered an exclusive interview with Christine ahead of her first ever Irish tour, I jumped at the chance. When I called on Friday evening, she was backstage getting ready for her performance in Sligo, with shows in Dublin, Galway and Letterkenny already under her belt.

Details of the Irish tour.

Details of the Irish tour.

The response from Irish audiences has been, she says, “overwhelming”, despite admittedly not always reaching the sell-out point she is used to, which she puts down to last week’s great weather and the fact that “when money is tight, the arts suffer first”.

However, the crowds have been there, and liked what they saw and heard.

“That’s been the best thing about it,” Christine told me, “the response afterwards. People have come, not really knowing what to expect and they’ve been wonderful. Queuing up afterwards to buy CDs, telling us we have to come back… not letting me leave the stage!”

The success of last year’s Belfast gigs was the inspiration for taking Performing Piaf around Ireland and Christine is really excited to return to Northern Ireland, to see if that electric atmosphere can be sparked once more.

“It becomes a highly charged show the longer we go on touring it, with these songs that mean a lot to people, particularly No Regrets.”

I ask for her thoughts on the longevity of Piaf’s appeal. Do modern audiences truly love the music, or, in this world of reality TV and soap operas, are they simply drawn to the tragic story? 

“Both are completely inseparable.” she says, immediately.

“There are so few artists who have transcended language, time and generations the way she has. It’s the unique quality of her voice, married with a unique age of music – the quality and the purity of the songwriting.”

However, Christine believes we are as drawn to the tragedy as we are to the artistry; to the “glamour of burn-out”, to those who live fast and die young.

“We’re fascinated by people who live on the edge and live to excess. Look at the response to Amy Winehouse. People with considerable talent but who don’t seem to be very good at life; their talent kind of consumes them.”

She poses her own question: “If Edith Piaf, Judy Garland, Billie Holiday, Amy Winehouse, had all suddenly became a healthy size 12, started singing about how wonderful life is: ‘my wallet’s full of £50 notes and I’m madly in love’… would we be as interested?”

“If you think about your top desert island disc songs, they generally aren’t those songs that express the certainty of life – it’s the complexity of life in art that I think we are much more drawn to.”

Christine’s passion for Piaf is evident, and her dedication to paying tribute so sincerely is paying off. Her multi-date show at the Edinburgh Fringe has been a sell-out for the past two years. She was invited to perform on highly-regarded BBC arts programme The Review Show last year.

Undoubtedly, the highlight has been Piaf’s co-writer and songwriter Charles Dumont joining her onstage during last year’s Fringe Festival.

“There’s an element to it where I think: ‘Did I…did I dream that?’ On the night we performed, it was his suggestion that we sing the song they wrote together, Les Amants, and then he took the piano and played for the crowd.

“You can imagine; most people didn’t know this was going to happen! Then he began to sing and play No Regrets and I had to get onstage and sing it back to him. I thought of that wee lassie from Glasgow, 20 years ago, listening to all these songs on vinyl! He wrote my favourite Piaf song, L’Accordeoniste; in fact he wrote some 40 songs for her in the last three years of her life.”

Christine singing, with Charles Dumont on piano. ©Paterson

Christine has also enjoyed success in her own right, with debut album Derby Street named  BBC Radio Scotland Album of the Week after its release in 2010.

The Piaf show was something she did whilst still teaching; however, teaching had always been a “fallback” career choice, something she went into having studied French at degree level – a direct result of her love for French music! It wasn’t until Christine took the plunge and began writing her own material in 2005, that she found herself teaching less and less. Upon the album’s release, she left teaching for good.

“You eventually have to ask ‘What do I have to say as an artist?’ I can’t keep being the girl who only sings someone else’s songs.”

Christine says she will “never tire of Piaf” but does put this down to having carved out her own musical identity.

“There is no greater satisfaction for me than my own songs, but the enjoyment of singing Piaf never wavers. Its wonderful.”

I can only recommend this gig. Christine is engaging and funny in between songs, and that heartwrenching, Piaf vibrato is hers when she sings. The show is not entirely in French; it is sparingly sprinkled with English translation and she does such a beautiful job of sharing the story of a song, you really don’t need to have a word of French to enjoy this show.

To get you in the mood, here is the Little Sparrow herself performing her two biggest hits; Non, Je Ne Regrette Rien and La Vie En Rose (NB La Vie En Rose: If you can listen to this song and watch this performance without your heart swelling almost unbearably, you and I will probably never be friends. Grabs me by the throat every time…)

Magnifique! A bientôt 🙂

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