WHO better to play Edith Piaf than Elizabeth Mansfield in the York Theatre Royal and Theatre By The Lake co-production of Hymn To Love – Homage To Piaf.

Elizabeth has taken on the role at regular intervals in her esteemed career and now does so again in Steve Trafford's play about the cabaret singer widely regarded as France's national chanteuse as well as being one of the great international stars of the 1940s and '50s.

"The fist time I played Piaf was at Harrogate Theatre in 1987 when Andrew Manley was the artistic director and staged Pam Gems's play, Piaf. Where does one's life go to?!" she says, ahead of Hymn To Love playing the York Theatre Royal Studio from Tuesday in artistic director Damian Cruden's production.

"The second time was when Steve and I first had the idea to do a homage to Piaf. I put together the songs in French and a narrative taken from Piaf's book Ma Vie for a one-night stand at the Chertsey Hall, just outside London.

"When I did the songs, it was all very moving, but no-one understood them, which stopped the narrative in its tracks, so we decided we'd have to contact the original songwriters and they all came back approving Steve's translations of 13 songs into English."

Everything spiralled from there, with the show devised by Trafford, Mansfield and Annie Castledine proving a hit. "I played 'The Singer', rather than saying I was playing Edith; there was never a sense that it was 'Who Do You Do: Piaf"," Elizabeth recalls.

"The show sold out in London, went to the Edinburgh Fringe and came back to London at the Drill Hall and we hoped something might come of it at that point, but it didn't."

Step forward Damian Cruden, who cast Mansfield in the title role in a revival of Gems's Piaf at the Theatre Royal in June 2002. "That's when we interpolated Steve's translations of the songs into Pam's play," says Elizabeth. "Now we're doing Hymn To Love again, and how it came about is through Conrad Lynch, the new artistic director at the Theatre By The Lake in Keswick.

"He'd produced Hymn To Love for the Edinburgh Fringe after we first did it at the Drill Hall in one of his first productions. He's since been the CEO at Shakespeare's Globe and produced shows for the Ambassador Theatre Group, and about 18 months ago he said, 'hey, how about doing Hymn To Love again?'.

"I was absolutely delighted, though I said we'd have to change the script as I'm older now, just like when I first played [music hall star] Marie Lloyd, I'd been too young for the role but playing her again when I was older made that show better. For Hymn To Love, I'm now more experienced and I've been through losses."

In the new version, performed by Mansfield with Patrick Bridgman in the role of the Pianist, Hymn To Love opens with Piaf rehearsing in her Manhattan hotel room for her final concert at Carnegie Hall in New York in 1957. Yet, for Piaf, the experience and even the hotel room where she is staying hold memories. Eight years earlier she had pleaded with her lover, the boxer Marcel Cerdan, to board a plane and fly from France to be with her. He did, but tragically died when his plane crashed en route.

His death was compounded by the guilt she felt for the rest of her life for having asked him to fly. On the same night he died, she courageously went ahead with her performance, dedicating it to him. In Hymn to Love Piaf relives that moment as she gathers herself to perform at Carnegie Hall.

"Piaf is haunted by his death and the trauma is re-lived as she rehearses for her last concert," says Elizabeth. "The nature of trauma is that she recalls all the other traumas of her life, such as the abuse she suffered when she was young. She was abandoned by her alcoholic mother at the age of two and left with her grandmother, who was also an alcoholic.

"Edith hadrickets, she was covered in lice, and her father then took her to live in a brothel from the age of three to ten because his mother was the cook there, and she was neglected again as he had a street acrobatic act, hitching up with various women as he went along."

Once Piaf moved to Pigalle, she lived in abject poverty but a nightclub owner heard her extraordinary voice and took her under his wing. "He disciplined her into how to sing, how to stand, giving her tips on technique," says Elizabeth. Yet in her transition from impoverished Parisian street busker to international stardom, Piaf could never settle, her story one of deprivation, love, loss, scandal and drug addiction, a "black chaos" at the heart of her life. "She died at 48, looking all of 102," says Elizabeth.

Damian Cruden is directing Hymn To Love for the first time. "I adore working with him; he's so good on text and so supportive of his actors," says Elizabeth, who has a new partner on stage in Patrick Bridgman. "He plays the piano like an angel, and because he's an actor, and the way Damian has set it in a more intimate setting, the show is very much built around the relationship between the Singer and the Pianist, who is silent but expressive.

"The Pianist is a musician who lives through this woman, whatever she throws at him; her extremis, her madness. He has to be as solid as a rock, and go through whatever she goes through, so it becomes a metaphor for life and how singing was everything for her."

Hymn To Love – Homage to Piaf, York Theatre Royal Studio, April 17 to 21, except April 19, when the Studio plays host to In Conversation With The Company (a conversation, not a performance) at 7.30pm. Tickets for the 7.45pm evening shows and 2pm Saturday matinee and the Thursday talk are on sale on 01904 623568 or at yorktheatreroyal.co.uk.