Charing Cross Theatre, London – until 24 June 2017
I learned two things at the press night of The Braille Legacy. One is that guide dogs may snarl at each other when passing – possibly a metaphor for critics and theatre bloggers I don’t have time to explore – and that Louis Braille, inventor of the tactile reading system for the sightless, was just fifteen when he developed his alphabet of raised dots.
It was marvellous to have RNIB guests with their dogs in the audience, and there’s a cleverness in the musical that you can enjoy it without sight. In the second act, I did try a song or two – the blind boys’ noble anthem, or perhaps the second or third blind boys’ noble anthem – with my eyes closed to bear this out. They say that blind people also have their other senses enhanced in compensation: I certainly knew by sense of smell that the man next to me had left in the interval, but that was probably because he’d applied his Terre d’Hermès with a crop sprayer.
Some charming tunes and an unfamiliar story set, like Les Misérables, in post-Napoleonic France could have launched a clever new musical. After surefire successes like Ragtime and Titanic, Charing Cross Theatre has a Korean missile test moment with a story that fits its score awkwardly, a vision of Paris in 1824 where the sun never shines, and some appalling lyrics translated by Ranjit Bolt.
I would have liked to hear Jean-Baptiste Saudray and Sebastien Lancrenon‘s concept score in the original before Bolt turned in the sort of slapdash French homework that meant I had to re-sit my A-level. With its memes of sight and light, there will inevitably be obvious rhymes but while Bolt has delivered impressive translations of French classics from Corneille to Feydeau, welding them into vowel-chiming musical theatre lyrics here means only the clichés survive.
It starts promisingly, with a couple of rousing numbers but then both the score and the plot plateau as Braille and his classmates tussle with authoritarian schoolmasters and matrons, and he spends his nights ‘working too hard’ to the point at which the stern gardiens of the brutal Institut National des Jeunes Aveugles sing improbably ‘you have to get some rest, Louis’. There’s a lot of purposeful striding about by the cast, some occasional lining up in a row to underscore a point, and frequent opening and closing of the doors to nowhere.
There are no romantic interests, apart from a suggestive frisson of sub-Spring Awakening homoeroticism between Louis and a classmate, and the dramatic arc of the plot manages to be both short and overextended. The music is symphonic, and features occasional echoes of Sunday in the Park with George but where it does it feels anachronistic. It could have been worse, Braille might have met Brel.
Sweet singing – including an unusual high baritone from new Mountview graduate Jack Wolfe as Louis, Thom Southerland’s now-familiar two-tier rotable staging, and smart black and white costuming help.
But not enough.
until June 24
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