Crazy Coqs, London
Frances Ruffelle is a London diamond born and bred, yet with a remarkable affinity for the songs and the culture that hail from across the Channel. That she created the role of Les Miserables’ Eponine, on both sides of the Atlantic and has only recently been nominated for Best Performance in a Musical following her astonishing portrayal of France's legendary Edith Piaf, suggests a delicious timelessness to her talent. So when Ruffelle emerges in the art nouveau basement of the Crazy Coqs, clad in chic mackintosh and shades and humming the quintessentially French melody from Un Homme Et Une Femme, there is more than a hint that the evening is going to reflect the singer's savoir faire.
On an evening that should have the smoking ban lifted (a haze of Gauloises/Gitanes smoke is actually de rigeur for an act like this), Ruffelle gives her own invigorating interpretation of cabaret. On record as wanting to ensure an audience is given damn good entertainment for their money, she does not disappoint. Her 4 piece band under Ben Atkinson are immaculately rehearsed and her routine is witty, eclectic and provocative. Never breaching the “fourth wall”, the actress rather stretches it, exploring how far she can let her French personae run wild through the course of an evening.
The set list is refreshing and like Ruffelle herself, almost petulantly unpredictable. She chooses songs special to her and with an early nod to Disney, her inclusion of the Sherman Brother's Scales And Arpeggios from The Aristocats is an unexpected and amusing choice. That she precedes that classic kid's (and her own childhood) favourite with Piaf's La Goualante Du Pauvre Jean, bravely picking up the accordion to accompany herself with the song’s famous melody, is testament to her confidence in taking on French culture and firmly placing her stamp on it. It is hard to think of another performer who could have the audacity to segue Noel Harrison’s 60’s masterpiece The Windmills Of Your Mind into a haunting The Movie In My Mind from Miss Saigon, poignantly suggesting that the anguish of a prostitute is global.
In a varied set list, every song was choice and performing with no interval save for some costume changes in and out of some wickedly provocative Parisian suggesting lingerie, her performance was breathtaking. But it was when Ruffelle sung Piaf that an electricity filled the room. It is London’s loss that the capital never saw the genius that she brought to Leicester’s Curve Theatre. (A link to that show's review is at the foot of this page.) Slipping between English and French versions of different songs, her The Three Bells, with young Cole Emsley as a heavenly chorister accompanying, had spines tingling and when Piaf’s L’Accordioniste was played by the instrument’s (Italian) virtuoso Romano Viazzani, the room was enchanted. Revealing that her audition piece for Les Mis had been Hymn To Love, to witness her take on that song, performing it again to an audience that included the show’s co-director Trevor Nunn (one of many UK musical theatre luminaries present) and immerse herself in an all-consuming performance, was to see and hear a truly special moment.
Ruffelle’s week-long residency is sold out, a hallmark of an excellent performer and also the skilled touch of her unsung producer Danielle Tarento. If you are lucky enough to have a ticket, you’re in for a treat. There’s talk of the run being repeated and so it should be. There is no finer example of excellence, in both cabaret and musical theatre, in town.