Frances Winston interviews Christine Bovill, whose show about Édith Piaf is intertwined with Christine’s own story, at The Olympia Theatre in Dublin, from tonight, 9th, to 14th November.
For a gregarious, cheerful, jazz aficionado from Glasgow, tragic French singer, Édith Piaf, may not seem like the most obvious choice of inspiration. However, for Christine Bovill, she has become very much a part of her life.
Her show, Christine Bovill’s Piaf, which she brings to Dublin’s Olympia Theatre from the 9-14 November, sees her intertwine her life with that of Piaf’s, while singing the songs made famous by the legendary chanteuse, known affectionately as The Little Sparrow. Christine’s love affair with Piaf is one that she jokes began “400 years ago”.
“I used to collect and listen to jazz records, and an Irish friend said I should listen to this singer called Édith Piaf, and I can trace the moment where I heard her singing ‘No Regrets’ as the beginning of my obsession”.
It’s an obsession that turned into a career, as the aforementioned show has received huge acclaim all over the world. From teaching all day, while performing Piaf at night, to touring the world full-time singing the songs of her icon, is quite a leap, but one that always seemed imminent. By her own admission, she never took on a full-time teaching contract, working instead as a substitute (albeit usually a full-time one on long contracts) and she was always conscious that she wanted the freedom to be able to leave the day job should the opportunity arise. Not that it was necessarily an easy decision to walk away from regular paid work for a career in the arts. As she explains:
“There was a period where I was doing little pockets of teaching and also performing and recording. But I realised that you get no respect in the industry if you’re doing something outside of it, so I left the classroom for good to concentrate on this. And what a privilege it is to be able to do this full time.”
Of course, since Piaf tragically died in 1963, just a couple of months shy of her 48th birthday, many of the people attending Christine’s shows are unlikely to have ever seen her live, and she admits that some people are surprised to realise that she’s not a tribute show.
“This is very much my story intertwined with her songs and story. It’s different every night as it’s just me singing and talking, and although there is a structure it can change. They seem to get a surprise as well when I sing in French, and I get a lot of people telling me that their husband or wife was the fan and that they didn’t actually realise how many of her songs they knew,” she remarks.
Having toured Ireland three times previously to huge acclaim, this is her first time performing in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, something which she is very excited about. However, while the Olympia does have an intimate feel, it is not quite as up close and personal with the audience as some of the other venues she has played in the past. Which begs the question: Does this torch singer prefer being able to see the whites of her audiences eyes in an intimate venue, or just looking out into the blackness knowing they are there in a large theatre.
“That’s a very good question,” she ponders. “I mean they’re both very different. I’d like to think that I’ve polished the show [so] that it feels very intimate no matter where you are seeing it. The thing is you’re very vulnerable up there. You’re putting yourself out there, and it’s a lonely place to be up there on a stage on your own. There is something of a luxury at looking out at a sea of blackness but knowing that the audience is there. I think it’s much more difficult to perform in intimate venues, but on the other hand I love that intimacy. They both have their merits,” she says diplomatically.
Piaf has a huge gay following, like so many tragic divas, but Christine admits that it’s something she probably doesn’t tap into enough saying:
“I never really think of it. It’s not something I have consciously gone after. I know that Piaf does have a large following in the gay community so maybe I should focus on that a bit more”.
Outside of Piaf, Bovill has released two of her own albums, The Sentence That I Serve, and Derby Street, and is an award-winning songwriter – something which she admits came about because of her Piaf show. However, next year might see her merge the two parts of her musical personality as she revealed:
“I’m in talks with a management company in London and they are looking at putting together a tour next year where I’d get to do my stuff and the Piaf stuff in the same show in [a] West End show. Kind of an introducing Christine Bovill thing”.
Exciting times indeed for Christine. But in the meantime, she is set to entertain audiences during her run in the Olympia, and she couldn’t be happier.
“Irish audiences have always really taken to the show,” she exclaims. “It’s astonishing. And I have family in Dublin and they’re all coming along. It’s such a great venue so it’s really exciting, and I hope it goes down as well there as everywhere else.”
Christine Bovill’s Piaf plays in Dublin’s Olympia Theatre, from 9-14 November, with tickets from €28.90