Edinburgh Fringe 2011
Melissa Cloake stars as Janice in the one woman show “Pollyanna meets Piaf”. In this moving rendition, she reflects on her naive upbringing that lays beneath her failed attempts at find a fulfilling love life. Duped by a compulsive liar into a tempestuous love affair she seeks counselling, and the journeys her therapy sessions take her on lead her to find her true self. Without inhibition, she bares her soul in self-penned song, poetry and through her alter ego, Edith Piaf.
Janice is born in Australia in the 1950’s to strictly Catholic parents. They come to parenting late and she suspects they knew less about sex and relationships than she did. This is no mean feat, as she seems to know less than nothing. She is primed, by nuns, to believe that love will just appear and that any boy she encounters “must have the potential to be Mr Right, otherwise they are wrong.” In her late thirties, still a virgin and lonely, she is befriended by Lou- a younger woman – who gradually becomes the object of her desire. Their lesbian romance blossoms, but she knows that all is not well due to Lou’s blatant dishonesty. Caught out by her web of lies, Lou abandons Janice. The grieving process is overwhelming and in desperation Janice seeks professional help to understand who she has become.
It’s a plain set – just two chairs – and Cloake is tiny. Her voice is delicate and tender and the narrative, at times rhyming, is sandwiched between original songs. Accompanied by simple piano, she’s sometimes shaky on the very high notes, but she sings her lyrics as though her very life depended on it. She tells musical stories through pleading mournful melodies that try to make sense of her world; like a singing diary. They’re not always comfortable to listen to, but they sit well with her casual conversational delivery. Her first of two Piaf songs is La Vie en Rose, and at this point she dons a shawl and adopts the Piaf stance at the microphone. In full spotlight she sings in English and French, not a Piaf imitation but an honest performance by a true fan.
At the end of the show, I didn’t feel that there had been a huge transition from the naiveté of Janice’s Pollyanna approach to life. She began her journey singing immature songs about love and cupid. During her lesbian relationship her inexperience dominates the lyrics. When she finally “finds herself” you still have a sense that this woman needs to be protected from herself. There isn’t enough delving into the influence of Edith Piaf, or her songs on Janice, and I would like to have seen her move away from her sugary lyrics to more powerful Piaf examples.
Cloake still has a story worth listening to though. It’s truly heart breaking to hear her unrealistic romantic ideals as a teenager, and the confusion when her peers marry and have children. Then there’s the acceptance and understanding of her new found sexuality which she is genuinely surprised by. Lou may have been a monster but she did allow Janice to experience a sexual freedom that she never realised existed. Soul searching.