Director Thom Southerland‘s track record since taking over at Charing Cross Theatre last year has been pretty darn good. Revivals of established musicals – Titanic, Ragtime, Death Takes a Holiday – have played to his strengths: big casts on a small stage singing numbers with expansive hearts and strong messages. Here he tries that trick again, this time with a brand new musical, but unfortunately it trips up his winning streak.
In the main it’s the source material which lets him down, despite Sebastien Lancrenon and Jean-Baptiste Saudray’s musical having an intriguing story at its heart. Louis Braille was the man who, you guessed it, invented the system of raised dots which correspond to our alphabet and enable blind people to read. The main problem with The Braille Legacy is that they set up the story and almost finish it in the first half, so that in the second everything is quickly bundled up for the ending. It’s as if the writers got bored. The final facts in Braille’s life are spoken in short summaries out to the audience by the cast. The tale feels awkwardly truncated.
Set in Paris in the mid to late 1800s, we meet our hero in a poverty-stricken school for blind children. He’s brainy and his studies are by turns encouraged and suppressed by the two men in charge of the school. Doctor Pignier (Jérôme Pradon) believes the blind children should be treated as well as other people, whereas Monsieur Dufau sees them as a means to and end: medical test subjects to help discover a cure for blindness. Over the course of the plot the young Braille battles on with his new alphabet despite some very dark goings-on in the school.
It should have all the trappings of a juicy, morality tale musical, but instead the songs are florid and overblown, and the piece isn’t helped by some painful over-acting. There are one or two good songs – I loved the simplicity of "The Vow" – sung by Braille’s friend Gabriel (a strong Jason Broderick) – and some of the young cast are very good. Jack Wolfe makes his professional debut as Louis Braille and he has a remarkable voice. Pradon – a veteran musical theatre actor – gives a Les Mis-esque performance, slightly too big for this stage, but he sings his songs winningly.
Tim Shortall’s set is a cumbersome hulk in the middle of the stage – a tall tower block of Parisian rooms placed on a revolve pushed by members of the cast. It crowds the action making the staging – usually Southerland’s strong point – too complicated. Perhaps he was trying to inject the piece with movement in order to make up for the static nature of the script. Ranjit Bolt’s translation – including some dubious rhymes – is occasionally wince-inducing.
In truth, the first half of this show isn't all bad. It clips along, features some nice songs and one or two strong turns. But the arc of the story is crushed by bad plotting, and the tendency to err on the side of bombastic overstatement drowns the piece. If only the writers had had the vision to spot that a little earlier.
The Braille Legacy runs at Charing Cross Theatre until 24 June.